What Is Breathing Practice?

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You might have heard of respiratory practice for respiratory health. In this setting, breathing practice is an activity that can help you to do things like breathe more effectively while doing physical activity, overcome breathing disorders, increase lung capacity, and manage lung disease. However, did you know that respiratory practice is also becoming popular in psychology, with respiratory therapists teaching thousands of patients how to use conscious breathing for improving their mental health and wellness? It's a big part of mindfulness, a movement growing out of Humanistic Psychology, a school that was developed during mid 1950's. It's also closely related to some older traditions.

Are You Looking For Ways To Be More Mindful?

What Are Respiratory Therapists?

Before we dive into the world of breathing practice for mental health and wellness, let’s taketake a step back to understand what respiratory therapists are and how they help patients breathe better.

A certified respiratory therapist, sometimes called breathing therapist, is a medical professional who is trained to provide respiratory care and treat patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders, such as lung disease, asthma,reduced lung function, sleep apnea, and other respiratory conditions.

High school students looking to become a respiratory therapist and treat patientsmust complete an Associate’s degree in respiratory care or a Bachelor’s degree from arespiratory therapy degree program accredited by the American Association for Respiratory Care. Then, most respiratory therapists go on to complete a Master’s degree in respiratory therapy.Often, employers prefer to hire respiratory therapists with a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree.According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapy is a fast-growing career projected to grow much faster than many other areas of health care. In terms of soft and interpersonal skills, respiratory therapists are detail oriented, empathic, and excellent communicators.

Registered respiratory therapists work and treat patients in a variety of settings, such as:

  • Hospitals
    • Emergency roomsusing basic life support systems
    • Neonatal intensive care units with premature infants
    • Physician offices administering diagnostic tests, diagnosing lung conditions, taking blood samples (such as blood gas analyzer), measuring carbon dioxide levels, and more
  • Nursing homes
    • Assessing the clinical components of respiratory health
    • Working with other healthcare professionals to educate patients about lung wellness
    • Providing respiratory therapy for the aging population
    • Implementing respiratory therapy programs to help assess lung capacity and provide better care
  • Cardiopulmonary rehabilitation centers
    • Thanks to their knowledge of human anatomy, many respiratory therapists work in outpatient rehabilitation centers treating patients and providing chest physiotherapy to individuals who have suffered accidents, have lung diseases, or need other forms of respiratory care

Respiratory Therapists and Mental Health

In psychology, respiratory therapists work to help you to be more aware of your body, as well as your thoughts and feelings. Working with respiratory therapistscan also help to calm you down during events like panic attacks. In psychotherapy, breathing therapy isn't called 'breathing therapy' - it's just one of many techniques that therapists may employ to help you address whatever issues you may be having.

So, what exactly is this breathing method, and how can you use it in your daily life?

Mindfulness

Anyone and everyone can and should practice mindfulness, and breathing is an important mindfulness tool.

Mindfulness is an increasingly accepted and popular practice. It is largely a combination of practices promoted by Humanistic Psychologists beginning in the mid-twentieth century and practices that have been used by different Eastern religions for centuries.

The fact that some elements of mindfulness exercises, including breathing techniques, derive from religious or spiritual practices, doesn't mean that mindfulness or breathing techniques are considered religious. The breathing techniques used in meditation and mindfulness can be practice in a completely secular way and are not in conflict with religious practices that you may already engage in.

Stress can restrict lung function. On the other hand, mindfulness promotes awareness of the individual and in the present moment. The importance of this ideal was first introduced to psychology by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers, the founder of what would later be known as "Person Centered Therapy" promoted his version of mindfulness - which he called "existential living" - as one of his five key elements of a fully functioning person. To Rogers, existential living meant being aware of and appreciating the present without trying to tie its significance to past or future events. This is largely what mindfulness tries to do, and one of the main ways that it tries to do it is with breathing techniques.

Breathing Practiceand Mindfulness

Your mind is always running. While you're doing the dishes, taking a shower, driving, watching TV, it never shuts off. As a result, your mind has a way of tuning itself out so that (most of the time) you're able to focus on what you're doing without reminding yourself that you need to keep breathing. Think about the last time that you were doing something boring or monotonous and suddenly realized that you were thinking about something completely unrelated. Buddhists called this constant thought the "monkey mind" and respiratory therapistsare starting to research it, too.

Once again, the term "monkey mind" was introduced by Buddhist thinkers but the idea isn't uniquely Buddhist. It's similar to the idea of the "subconscious mind" proposed by Sigmund Freud and his followers beginning in the early twentieth century. You may not always be aware of your monkey mind or what it's up to, but it can have a real impact on your day-to-day life. As a result, mindfulness is very interested in training the mind to be more aware of the monkey mind so that you can train your mind to behave a little better. One of the ways that you can become more aware of the monkey mind is through the use of breathing techniques.

Breathing Practices You Can Try

Breathing is used as a tool in mindfulness meditation because it is noticeable but not distracting and it is always with you. As a result, focusing on your breathing is a good way to learn about your focus in general.

A Simple Breathing Practice

Sit or lie down comfortably. You don't have to be sitting in "lotus pose" or lying in "shavasana" to practice the exercise - being comfortable is most important. Unless, of course, you find that sitting or lying in a certain position keeps you comfortable while preventing you from falling asleep while meditating. In that case, utilizing a pose can be helpful. Just be sure that you will be comfortable breathing in your pose for the duration of your practice. Try to start with at least two minutes of breathing and gradually increase to at least ten minutes of breathing. Aim to practice intentional breathing two or three times each week, to begin with, but ideally, practice every day.

Are You Looking For Ways To Be More Mindful?

Whatever pose you pick, try to maintain it once you begin your breathing meditation. You can always pick a new one next time.

Next, settle into the pose and focus on your breathing. You don't have to try to breathe in a certain way, just continue breathing naturally and take note of how it feels as you breathe in and out.

When you get distracted by your thoughts of other things, don't beat yourself up - getting distracted is the point. Make a mental (or physical) note of the thought that distracted you and get back to focusing on your breathing.

When your breathing practice is done, think about your list. Take note of what kind of things distracted you from breathing. This is your introduction to your monkey mind.

You can use this lesson to have "micro-meditation" breathing sessions throughout the day to ground yourself if you feel flustered or upset. As you progress in your mindfulness practice, you will be more aware of your breathing and monkey mind even without meditating.

Our Stress Response And Breathing

Breathing therapy isn't only good for moments when you're a little flustered. According to respiratory therapists, it's also good for emergencies like panic attacks.

Stress is a natural and healthy biological response to external stimuli. It helps us to focus and to think and work more efficiently. However, in extreme circumstances or for people with anxiety disorders and related conditions, the stress response can be too extreme or too constant. This is when breathing therapy and seeing a respiratory therapist can come in handy.

Your breathing is a unique biological phenomenon. Your body's systems can be divided up into those controlled by the autonomic and the somatic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has to do with things like your heartbeat - things that you don't have to or can't consciously control. The somatic nervous system has to do with the things that you can control, like moving your arms and legs. Breathing is both. By working with a respiratory therapist to gain control ofyour conscious control of breath, you can influence the unconscious controls taking your breathing out of control, making panic attacks so scary and difficult. This practice, called "diaphragmatic breathing", can reverse the body's stress response to help you to prevent a panic attack if you initiate it when you first feel it coming on, and before it's taken over. It does this by stimulating the Vagus nerve, which helps your body to relax.

Respiratory therapists and scientists have found that anykind of slow, deep breathing can help to stimulate the Vagus nerve and combat the stress response. We recommend experimenting and looking up other breathing techniques, but this one is our favorite:

Close your eyes if you can. Take a long slow breath in through your nose. Make a note of how many seconds you spend inhaling and try to exhale for a second or two longer than you inhale. Repeat if necessary. Think about the breaths filling your lungs from the bottom through the top and completely emptying your lungs from top to bottom. Make sure that you are allowing your abdomen and chest to move in and out with each breath. Your chest and abdomen should expand (get bigger) when you inhale and then contract or "deflate" when you exhale. This is diaphragmatic breathing.

Unlike the breathing therapy described earlier in this article, diaphragmatic breathing can be done anywhere, in any position, and takes seconds instead of minutes. Further, while you may find it soothing to practice diaphragmatic breathing every day, you don't have to in order to realize its benefits.

How Respiration, Breathing, & Oxygen Connection Are Connected

Diaphragmatic breathing doesn't only help to control panic attacks by stimulating the Vagus nerve.

The job of breathing and your lungs is to get rid of carbon dioxide - a waste product that your cells create as they go about your business - in exchange for oxygen, which your cells need to carry out their functions.

When you take quick, shallow breaths - like during a panic attack - it prevents your lungs from working how they normally do. Things only get worse when your intake of oxygen and carbon dioxide are imbalanced, which is why some people can faint from the restrictive breathing that sometimes happens during a panic attack.

Diaphragmatic breathing helps you to maintain proper oxygen balance by increasing the amount of oxygen you take in with each breath while ensuring that you are still getting rid of the right amounts of carbon dioxide.

The BetterHelp Connection

This article has given you several breathing tools that you can use on your own to manage your breathing, monkey mind, and even prevent or reverse panic attacks. This may be enough to get you through the day but if you have panic attacks, can't focus, or if your monkey mind regularly says things that it shouldn't, breathing might not be enough. You might need further breathing help from a professional.

BetterHelp prides itself on increasing awareness of mental health issues by publishing educational articles like this one. However, our main service is to connectpatientswith qualified, licensed mental health professionals, including respiratory therapists. All of BetterHelp therapists are professional mental health experts who have earned at least a Master’s degree in Psychology, Social Work, or Counseling, and some of themhave also completed a Bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapyor anAssociate’s degree in respiratory therapy, as well. Many have practical experience in breath work and mindfulness.

If you think that you might need help from talking to a licensed therapist, counselor, or registered respiratory therapist, visit https://www.betterhelp.com/online-therapy/ to get started.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.