What Is Breathing Therapy?

By: Jon Jaehnig

Updated February 23, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

You might have heard of breathing therapy in the context of respiratory health. In this setting, breathing therapy is an activity that can help you to do things like breathe more effectively while doing physical activity. However, did you know that breathing therapy is also catching on in the psychology world? It's a big part of mindfulness, a movement growing out of Humanistic Psychology, a school that developed during the middle and end of the previous century. It's also closely related to some older traditions.

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In psychology, breathing therapy can help you to be more aware of your body, as well as your thoughts and feelings. It can 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, and how can you use it in your daily life?


Anyone and everyone can and should practice mindfulness.

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 practices. 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.

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.

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Breathing Therapy And 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. 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 scientists are starting to catch on.

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.

Breath is used as a tool in mindfulness meditation because it is noticeable but not distracting and it is always with you. As a result, how well you can focus on your breath 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 more important than looking good. 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 in your pose for the duration of your practice. Try to start at least two minutes and gradually increase to at least ten minutes. Shoot for around two or three times each week, to begin with, but ideally, practice every day.

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

Next, settle into the pose and focus on your breath. You don't have to try to breathe in a certain way, just breathe 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 breath.

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

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

Breath and The Stress Response

Breathing therapy isn't only good for moments when you're a little flustered. 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 can come in handy.

Your breath 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 using your conscious control of breath, you can influence the unconscious controls taking your breath 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.

Any kind of slow, deep breathing can help to stimulate the Vagus nerve and combat the stress response. We recommend experimenting and looking up some other 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.

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 realize its benefits.

Breathing and The Oxygen Connection

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 the way that they are supposed to. Things only get worse when your balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide goes out of whack, which is why some people can faint from 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 tools that you can use on your own to hopefully manage your 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 help from a professional.

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BetterHelp prides itself on increasing awareness of mental health issues by publishing educational articles like this one. However, our main service is connecting individuals with qualified, licensed mental health professionals.

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

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