We take breathing for granted; it’s there all the time. Even when we’re not paying attention at all, it’s there supporting us. It is one of the few physiological functions that is both involuntary and voluntary — we can alter it when we choose to. There are many practices and religions that use breath control as a practice. For example, various types of breathing are used in the yoga tradition. Specific breath practices can cool us or warm us or activate more energy or help us calm. Here, I will be focusing on the ways in which attending to breath can be of value to us and our clients.
I wake up every day and I think,
‘I’m breathing! It’s a good day.’
My heart is beating, and I’m breathing,
and nothing anybody has ever done has changed that.
We can use breath awareness to assess how the client is doing in a given moment. Noticing your client’s breathing pattern may show you that she is anxious. When people are anxious, it is more difficult to take in new information and retain it. Anxiety also interferes with a person’s creativity and problem-solving ability. Slowing and deepening the breath activates the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. So, when your client’s breathing is shallow or rapid, take a breath yourself, and offer to slow down the session. It’s a bit like the Motivational Interviewing strategy of Rolling with Resistance (Tips #103 & #130). Acknowledge what you notice. Perhaps, “I see that I’m going too fast.” Or “It seems like this isn’t quite working well for you.” Or “How about we take a moment to settle and review what you most need today?” You could offer a brief breathing break. Suggest a couple of deep breaths. Then go back to what matters to this person and inquire about how best to proceed (Tip #4, Asking the Client for Direction).
We can also notice our own breath. It can tell us about our current state and how we are interacting well or not with our clients. When our breath is even and slow, we are likely present and focused on the client. If it is shallow and fast, we are probably focused on our needs and goals (Tip #151). Without letting the client know, we can deliberately shift how we’re breathing to slow it down and deepen it.
It is natural for us to take a deeper breath as we shift gears from one focus or activity to another. You can help the client make important transitions by signaling with a deep breath. For example, when it is time to transition the session from exploring the reasons to make a specific change to designing a plan to accomplish the change, this is a perfect opportunity for both a deep breath and a carefully worded MI summary (Tips #72 & #119).
We use our breath to help us become more present, more mindful, and therefore better counselors. Many mindfulness practices suggest that you begin with simply attending to your breath. Breath is always there and does not carry judgment. Many of us find paying attention to our breath to be grounding or centering.
This has been just a brief look at how breath affects our attention and state. If you are interested in more experiential training, consider taking a mindfulness class. There are hundreds of such classes around the country, usually called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. These evidence-based classes are an effective way to dive into breath awareness with the support of a leader and group. There are many phone apps. Insight Timer is a popular one. It provides guided meditations as well as allowing you to set a timer to simply breathe for a few minutes. Set aside time to attend to your breathing either before your client day and/or between sessions.