From Relaxation to Mindfulness: What can be gained by breathing deeply?

byAlison Gardner, Psy.D.

Over the past several decades a substantial and convincing body of empirical research has been done that supports the use of mindfulness in helping adults with a wide range of emotional and physical ailments such as: anxiety, depression, chronic pain, stress, eating disorders, addiction and some personality disorders. While the empirical support for its use with children is still in its infancy, there is growing excitement about how we may be able to teach children some of the basic skills of mindfulness in order to foster a number of centrally important abilities. The list includes but is not limited to: focused attention, regulation of emotion, self control, empathy and an ability to consider other’s points of view.

One of the most common and basic tools we teach children for self calming and relaxation is deep breathing. This is also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing and means that we slowly and deliberately inflate our lungs fully and then empty them as slowly and fully as we filled them. This is the type of breathing done while practicing yoga. It’s also a “strategy” we’ve given children for years: “If you’re mad, take 3 deep breaths instead of hitting your brother” or “If you are afraid, take 3 deep breaths to try to calm your body before jumping in to try to master that fear.” Deep breathing is also something we encourage for relaxation. This has been effective for both anxious children trying to calm their bodies and minds at night so they can fall asleep as well as for active kids who need a little help winding down enough for rest.

Deep breathing is also a centerpiece in the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a very old activity that has been getting a great deal of good press lately as it gains in popularity. Mainstream medical and mental health practitioners are encouraging this practice more and more as the empirical research documents its strong positive effect on both physical and emotional health. But what is mindfulness exactly? Can we and should we try teaching it to children?

Jon Kabat-Zin, a professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at theUniversity of Massachusetts Medical School defines mindfulness as, “the awareness that arises or is cultivated by paying attention, intentionally, to the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner.” OK, so what does that have to do with deep breathing?

Learning the practice of mindfulness often starts with taking the time to breathe diaphragmatically and intentionally focus one’s attention as completely as possible on simply the breath coming in and the breath going out in the present moment. This may sound a lot simpler than it is. Most people will find that while they can focus attention directly on their breath, their thoughts and feelings about the past, present and future quickly find their way to the forefront of the mind’s attention. One thing that mindfulness cultivates is the ability to focus attention selectively. When practiced daily, even for brief periods of time, it’s like a work-out routine for the mind and specifically the skill of focused attention. One can also build this skill by choosing to systematically turn attention, one by one, to other experiences such as physical sensations (what one sees, hears, or smells) and physical sensations inside the body. When the thoughts and feelings about our everyday life and concerns intrude again into awareness, mindfulness teaches one to take the approach of simply observing them in a nonjudgmental manner and then letting them go out of awareness again. They are simply not what one chooses to attend to in that moment.

By practicing turning one’s attention to other parts of experience that can often be taken for granted, mindfulness practitioners suggest that another important benefit is cultivated. That is: distance or perspective from thoughts and feelings that people sometimes find consuming. Strong empirical research in adults supports the claim that mindfulness practice can strengthen an inner core of the mind (neuroscientists call it the prefrontal orbital cortex). Some consider this area or core to be the center of conscious awareness, perhaps even “the self.” Developing this core (or “hub” as Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine calls it) doesn’t take away painful or stressful circumstances in life but it does give one a place to operate from in responding to life’s challenges that enhances the ability to keep things in perspective. Here is an example. Even when one is overcome by a painful emotion (anger, sadness or fear), one is more able to maintain a sense that this emotion is not the entirety of oneself, rather it is just an emotion that has come and an emotion that will go when viewed from the mind’s core.

When mindful practices are taken even further and one works on accepting rather than judging all the players in the mental landscape (thoughts, sensations, feelings etc.), one can be more compassionate towards oneself (minimizing risk factors for depression) and also set the stage for a more compassionate understanding of others. Who doesn’t make better choices in responding to life’s difficulties when they have some compassionate perspective rather than feeling caught up in a catastrophic thought or hurt feeling?

Perhaps a good way to summarize one of the most important benefits of mindfulness is that it is a skill that allows us to maximize the chance of thoughtfully responding to the environment (e.g., one’s spouse, children, boss, or the crazy driver on the beltway) rather than reacting to it. With less reactivity, we are free to make more conscious choices about how to handle the ups and downs of daily life.

So how does this translate to skills we all work so hard to try to foster in children like focused attention, emotional regulation, self control and empathy for others?

Here are a few ideas:

  • For working on focused attention, children of most ages can be taught to close their eyes and spend just a few minutes focusing on deep breathing. Fun can also be had playing games of observation and encouraging kids to just focus on the sounds they hear or different scents you may offer them.
  • For gaining skills for self calming and coping with upsetting thoughts and feelings try the “Mind in a Jar” activity (from “Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children” by Thich Nhat Hanh.) Put colored sand in a jar with water and talk with your child about how each grain of sand represents a thought or a feeling. The jar represents a mind. Shake up the jar and suggest that this is how your mind is when you are very upset, hurried or stressed and that it is difficult to see things clearly when your mind is in this state. Then lead your child in doing deep breathing until all the sand settles at the bottom of the jar. Then discuss together what the water and sand looks like (symbolic of a calmer mind.) Suggest that this is how breathing can calm our minds and help us feel better and think more clearly when we are upset.
  • For developing the ability to see others’ perspectives, breathing and focusing exercises can be used to center awareness on the consideration of others feelings and viewpoints.
  • There are also many children’s books that have come out that you could read together with your child. A few examples are: “Peaceful Piggy Meditation” by Kerry Lee MacLean and “Anh’s Anger” by Gail Silver

If this topic excites you too, a fascinating new book was just released by Dan Siegel called “The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.” Not only does this book provide concrete strategies for parents and teachers to foster focused attention, emotion regulation, and empathy in children it also summarizes the neuroscience research (in extremely accessible language for the non-neuroscientist) that supports these strategies and the practice of mindfulness.

Another book that discusses how to introduce mindfulness to children with fun exercises they’ll enjoy is called “Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children” by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community (2011).