We all know the importance of a few good, deep breaths. Even without knowing the science behind it, or practicing yoga (breath work in yoga is known as pranayama, literally "breath control"), we have all heard the conventional wisdom to take a deep breath when stressed, or before reacting to a triggering event. This is very good advice.
But did you know that if calm is what you're looking for, your exhale is important than the inhale? And that by controlling the length of your exhale, you can create calm?
We have two main responses within our nervous system. One is the sympathetic system, which is activated during stress (fight, flight, or freeze mode), and the other is our parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming and relaxing. This system is sometimes known as the "rest and digest" system and is critical for well-being. The parasympathetic nervous system, our personal self-soothing system, is activated by the exhale.
Each exhalation allows your heart rate to decrease, stress hormones (like cortisol) to dissipate, your muscles to relax and your body to heal and lowers blood pressure. Prolonging the exhale brings a sense of calm.
Try it: Experiment with changing the length or your inhales and exhales and notice how it feels within your body. Breathe in and out through your nose. First, try a long inhale (maybe to the count of four) and a short exhale (try a count of two). Repeat this several times.
Try short inhales and short exhales next. What changes? You may feel your sympathetic nervous system kick in, which may feel either energizing or anxiety producing. If you notice yourself becoming uncomfortable, stop! This is the way we tend to breath when stressed, without even noticing that we're doing it!
Now, switch it up, and lengthen your exhale. Double the length of your exhale to inhale. Try inhaling for a count of four, and exhaling for a count of eight. Repeat this several times. Feeling calmer yet?
Kids can learn this skill too. Even young children can learn to notice and control their breathing and can practice "blowing out" for longer in stressful situations. Explicitly teaching this skill is especially important for kids on the autism spectrum, as children with autism often lack the tools to monitor rising emotions and self-calm on their own. Be sure to teach and practice this skill regularly in calm, quiet moments to help reduce meltdowns. The more we practice, the easier it will come when we need it most.
*Note: Kids breathe naturally faster than adults. Try a count of 1 (inhale), 1-2 (exhale) for younger children. Do not have children "hold" their breath!