What’s your relationship with your breath?

  • Is it a friendly resource?
  • Perhaps a tool for performance?
  • A frustrating reminder of your panic—unyieldingly unpredictable?
  • A reminder from others that your emotions are too much, cueing “Take a breath!”
  • Or are you reading this and thinking, “Yeah, I breathe… someone should let her know that’s not something people need to think about.”

Breath Is Similar to Other Relationships in Your Life

Therapists are interested in the quality and history of your relationships. To me, the relationship with the breath is no different.

Your access, comfort, and breath awareness all play a role in your well-being.

Like any relationship, you can always work on it and re-connect. Curiosity is key. You do yourself a disservice to take it for granted because you can go deeper.

Yes, indeed, it can become a loving relationship.

A Broken Relationship With Your Breath

For now, your breath may be an actual source of anxiety. Of mistrust.

Perhaps you experience panic, and your breath seems to betray you.

I often hear people share that they have used breathing exercises or strategies they learned in past therapy, which haven’t worked.

So, we explore that:

  • How was this approached?
  • What expectations did you have?
  • And lastly, “Well, let’s not do that exactly if it doesn’t work for you.”

Not everything works for every person nor every strained relationship.

Becoming Aware of Your Breath

As some of you read this, you have become more aware of your breath. Some of you may feel it to be unpleasant. Others took a deep breath and found it settling.

Just notice this and know there isn’t anything you need to do. Instead, see the sensations as they come up and the shift in your body. Allow it to be.

As you either grow your tolerance of being with discomfort or become more aware of your breath’s calming effect, your relationship with your breath will grow. As a result, you’ll have more insight into your breath relationship and access to it.

Access to deep breaths and breathing can help you relax and bring calm. Maybe you won’t feel completely relaxed at first, but calmer.

After all, we don’t immediately improve relationships without a bit of work.

Your Breath Is Connected to Your Mind and Other Body Systems

The outside world and your inner world can both impact breath.

The autonomic nervous system is a part of our body that controls involuntary actions, such as your heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion, and breathing while you sleep.

Our autonomic (automatic) nervous system, working with our brain and consists of three parts:

  • Sympathetic nervous system (amps you up)
  • Parasympathetic nervous (calms you down)
  • Enteric system (gut brain)

The autonomic nervous system balances and regulates the three and keeps other body systems informed so they can do their jobs.

During stressful times (e.g., anxiety, fear, trauma), the body activates the sympathetic nervous system. As a result, you may want to flee, fight, or freeze. Plus, many other reactions occur in your body, including quicker, more shallow breathing.

The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect of the sympathetic nervous system.

When our body perceives that the threat has passed, it activates the parasympathetic system. In turn, this allows for a deep breath, among other responses in our bodies and brains

One benefit of a healthier relationship with your breath is that you can also support your parasympathetic nervous system by letting it know, “It’s ok.”

Breath is an access point to the calming parasympathetic nervous system. This calming feeling is especially true of deep breathing with elongated exhales. Many scientific studies confirm the health and psychological benefits of focusing on breathing and breathwork. Among others, these include:

  • Decrease in stress and anxiety
  • Improved sleep
  • Better mental focus

Improving Your Relationship With Breath Can Enhance Your Relationship With Others

This one is neat. Have you ever noticed how being around a calm person can help you feel different in your own internal experience? And more connected to the other person?

Being with them lowers your stress and anxiety levels; it improves your sleep and mental focus. Because we are so socially connected and dependent on our connections, we can respond to each other’s nervous systems. We can co-regulate!

Maybe you’re a parent who helps your child calm down. Perhaps you have those go-to people in your life that help you take a deeper breath. A good relationship connects us; it doesn’t isolate us or trigger our sympathetic nervous system.

Breath Connects to Spirit

Many spiritual practices focus intensely on breath, including religions and secular traditions.

Yogic practice heavily includes breath, not just in the Asanas (poses) that most are familiar with, but a whole dedicated breathing practice called pranayama. Pranayama is Sanskrit translated to “vital life force” or sometimes “control of life force.”

Breathwork is often used in meditative and mindfulness practices:

  • Connecting to yourself on a deeper inner level
  • Being more present.

Some people discover access to a spiritual awakening and enlightenment with breath incorporated into spiritual practices.

Where to Improve Your Relationship With Your Breath

Counselors, yoga practitioners, and meditative and spiritual coaches can teach breathing exercises and strategies to support you in strengthening and healing this relationship.

Consider what would help you connect with your breath and live a fuller, healthier, and more present life.

Rae Magnani

Rae Magnani is a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) and a registered yoga teacher (RYT-200). In addition, she is completing a program to become a somatic experiencing® practitioner (SEP).