Breathing Through Stress for Kids and Adults
Have you ever noticed how you breathe when you are feeling stressed and anxious? Where do you feel the breath? Do you notice other sensations that come up for you in the body? When I’m stressed, I often feel pressure in my chest. My heart rate is faster, my breathing is faster, and as a result, my breathing is much shallower. Short little sips of air are all I can get in. I notice other areas of tension flaring up as well, like in my belly and shoulders. When I experience chronic stress, my shoulders are so high up into my ears it’s a wonder I can hear anything. And they stay up ALL day long. I become one big ball of tension like a rubber band ready to snap. This is a good example of times that we get stuck in sympathetic nervous system activation.
Backing up. The nervous system consists of two main parts: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord. The PNS consists mainly of nerves that connect the CNS to every other part of the body. The PNS is divided into three separate subsystems: the somatic, autonomic, and enteric nervous systems. Somatic nerves are responsible for voluntary movement – the actions you take purposely. The autonomic nervous system is your autopilot. It is responsible for the functions that you do without having to purposely DO like your heart beating, digesting your food, and breathing. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is activated to mobilize energy and engage with your environment (think: exercising, feeling productive and getting lots of stuff done, even paying very close attention to reading this instead of drifting off to sleep), while the parasympathetic nervous system is activated when you are in a relaxed state (snuggling up under the covers or drifting off 10 times while you read this). The sympathetic nervous system helps us hustle and get the list checked off, and it also helps us run or fight when we need to evade or fight off an attack. While the sympathetic nervous system has a bad reputation for its “fight or flight” response, it is part of our normal daily cycle. On a typical day when we’re healthy, our bodies cycle between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activations about every 90 minutes. We flow through periods of high activity, then rest, back and forth. We need these moments of each for healthy daily functioning. We're also not meant to get stuck in one or the other for long periods of time. Think of it like a slider or spectrum of intensity. We may feel completely freaked out and hit a full 10 on the slider when something or someone dangerous is chasing us, and more like a 4 when we’re paying attention to cooking dinner. When I’m holding that tension in my whole body like the rubber band about to snap, I’m probably at a 7. I could go to full 10 really quickly if needed, and it wouldn’t take much to spark that flame.
Since it is automatic, we don’t have to think about it. We can, however, influence our nervous system activation. The best way to do this is through our breath. When I notice that I am extremely stressed and anxious, and I’ve determined that there is no active current threat, I can choose to work with my breath to help reset my nervous system. This is something we can teach kids, too. We can pre-teach them some breathing exercises that they can use when they are hitting the rubber band snapping moment. When they begin to feel that heat building, explosion at the ready – but NOT yet to the full tea kettle whistle, they can be reminded to tap into some breathing. It helps to catch it at a lower level on the scale. Using the 1-10 example, they can feel they are at a 7 and start to activate their breathing to help them focus enough to problem solve. Here are a few breathing exercises to get you started.
Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest. With kids, you can have them put a stuffed animal on their belly to watch it move.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out (or stuffed animal up). Your chest should not move.
Breathe out and feel the hand on your belly go in.
Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
Notice how you feel.
Roll Up Breathing
Try this exercise when you first get up in the morning to relieve muscle stiffness and clear clogged breathing passages. Then use it throughout the day to relieve back tension and keep your nervous system balanced.
From a standing position, hinge at the hips and bend forward coming into a forward fold with your knees slightly bent, letting your arms dangle close to the floor.
As you inhale slowly and deeply, return to a standing position by rolling up slowly vertebra by vertebra, bringing your head last.
Pause the breath for just a few seconds in this standing position.
Exhale slowly as you return to the forward fold, hinging from the hips.
Notice how you feel.
Kids can pretend to be an elephant in this exercise, and gently sway their “trunk” side to side. This can help them to slow it down, give them a focus, and help them stay in the pose long enough to get the benefit of the breath.
By lengthening the exhale, we can tap into parasympathetic nervous system activation and begin to lower our slider to a calmer level.
Find a comfortable position to sit or lie down. If you can, close your eyes – but this is not required – you can completely do this with eyes open without anyone knowing.
Breathe in through your nose to the count of four.
Exhale through your nose to the count of eight.
If this feels too long at first, you feel dizzy, or if you are especially high on your 1-10 scale, start with an inhale count of 3 and exhale for 6. For kids, using bubbles or a pinwheel can help them elongate their exhale. I’ve noticed that no matter their age, giving kids either of these tools can very quickly change their mood. You’re never too old for bubbles or pinwheels!
The next time your shoulders are riding into your ear canals and you feel like you’re going to snap, give these a try! Let me know which one you like the best. And go get yourself some bubbles. They’re magic.
Want to dive deeper? Check out my Nervous System Reset Course to learn more about how to breathe to support you morning, noon and night.