Feeling stressed? Take a breath. And if your children are stressed, too, you can get them doing breath work, as well.
Breath work is a trendy word for an ancient concept: controlled breathing. A recent study published in Cell Reports Medicine found that just five minutes a day of breath work leads to a greater reduction in anxiety and negative thoughts than mindfulness meditation.
Among the authors’ recommendations is a practice called cyclic, or physiological, sighing, which involves deep inhalations and prolonged exhalations. According to Stanford University researchers, cyclic sighing slows the heart rate and has a soothing effect on the body.
Article @StanfordMed about our lab’s discovery (Clinical Trial) of 5 min Cyclic (Physiological) Sighing as a potent way to reduce anxiety 24/7. For reducing stress/elevating mood Cyclic Sighing outperforms meditation or other practices. https://t.co/qvOjSkBkYx
— Andrew D. Huberman, Ph.D. (@hubermanlab) February 10, 2023
While all of the participants in the Cell Report Medicine study were adults between the ages of 18 and 81 — with the mean age coming in just a hair shy of 28 — these same techniques can also help the little humans among us we call “kids.”
In fact, not only are the results likely generalizable to children, such short exercises are perfectly designed for kids, Dr. David Spiegel, one of the study’s authors and director of Stanford University School of Medicine’s Center on Stress and Health, told the Deseret News.
“The fact that we saw this kind of benefit with such a short intervention, if anything, it would be better with kids because their attention span is shorter than adults,” said Spiegel, who is also medical director of Stanford’s Center for Integrative Medicine.
“All of the breath work helped to some extent, but the one that clearly did the best was cyclic sighing,” said Spiegel, who explained that he and the other researchers believe that cyclic sighing is effective because it favors the parasympathetic nervous system over the sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body’s response to stress, getting you amped up and ready for “fight or flight.” Think of it as the uphill. The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite — it’s the downhill, helping to soothe your body after the “fight or flight” response occurs. The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with “rest and digest” because it helps regulate digestion, as well.
The trick to getting your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in via cyclic sighing lies in the ratio: It’s got to be a 1:2 — that is, you exhale for twice the amount of time as you spend inhaling. Breathe in, hold the breath and then inhale again, filling your lungs all the way. Then slowly let it out. (Spiegel himself will walk you through it on this YouTube video.)
For kids, you could conceptualize this as filling a balloon — which never takes just one breath — and then slowly letting the air out.
While cyclic sighing might be tough for the littlest ones to get a hang of, other breathing techniques are effective, as well.
“Children can use deep breathing to help them throughout the day, whether they’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, need to relax or go to sleep, to calm their body after exercising, or even just to pause and reset when they are high energy,” according to the website of Children’s Health, a pediatric health care provider in north Texas.
Here are a few exercises to try at home with your kids.
Smell the flower
An easy-to-remember phrase helps children take a deep breath and then to exhale. Just instruct them to “Smell the flower, blow out the candle.”
Another similar exercise, the flower breath, has children visualize a flower, breathing in the scent and breathing out the petals. Watch the Yoga Guppy to see how it’s done.
If your kids are into animals, you can piggyback on their interest and teach them to do animal breaths like “bear breaths” or “giraffe breaths.” (You can adapt this for young dinosaur fans, as well.)
Snake breaths, as explained here by the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, are another fun one: they entail breathing in for three seconds, holding it for one, and then hissing the breath out. And don’t forget about dragon breaths, too.
Breaking out a bottle of bubbles can also be a way to get your kids doing some breath work without even realizing it.
But we shouldn’t have to trick our kids into doing breath work. Not only are children pretty smart, they don’t enjoy being upset. Children want to calm down just as much as we want them to calm down. So when my kids are having meltdowns (and I’m managing to not have one along with them), I articulate that we need to breathe. Then I get down on my knees so I’m at eye level, I hold their hands if they’ll let me, and I lead them by saying, “Let’s breathe together. In-two-three-four, hold-two-three-four, out-two-three-four, hold-two-three-four.”
And then I model it for them.
For those of you who need a visual for this technique, which is called 4-4-4-4 breathing, or box breathing, the Children’s Hospital of Colorado offers this cute expanding and deflating sun to follow.
Note that it’s important to teach and practice these techniques when children are calm; it’s hard to learn when we’re upset and our brains are amped up.
There are also lots of fun children’s books to read about breath work. Check out this one: “Belly Breath” by Leslie Kimmelman. I read it with my 5- and 7-year-old at bedtime and it gets us practicing our breath work when we’re calm and relaxed.
Kira Willey’s book “Breathe like a Bear” offers 30 different short, simple breathing and mindfulness exercises that kids (and parents) can do anywhere anytime they need to feel grounded.
Another useful title is “Breathing Makes it Better,” which was written by clinical psychologist Christopher Willard, who teaches at Harvard Medical School. Not only does this book remind children to breathe, it also teaches them to identify the bodily feelings that signal that they are upset or anxious.