Conscious and Controlled Breathing

Posted in: Parenting, Self-care

By Dr Bronwyn Leigh

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.  Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, teacher and author 


When we are stressed, anxious or irritated our breathing tends to become rapid and shallow.  We breathe higher in the chest, rather than deep in the belly.  Shallow and rapid breathing decreases our oxygen intake and leads our entire body to ‘speed up’ to match our breath.  Shallow and rapid breathing contributes to anxiety, panic attacks, muscular tension, headaches, fatigue, poor circulation and digestion, increased heart rate and decreased concentration.  Consciously slowing and controlling our breath can be an effective first step in slowing down, gaining a sense of calm and focusing our mind.

The breath is key to slowing down.  It connects the mind and body by bringing the breath into conscious awareness.  Focusing on your breath plants you firmly in the present time – we breathe in the present time, not the past or future!

There are many controlled breathing exercises.  This one is called the 6-second cycle.


Focus on your breathing.  If it is comfortable, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Begin to count while breathing.  As you inhale say to yourself “In, 2, 3” and as you exhale say “Out, 2, 3”.  It is important to count to yourself as this creates a distraction for your mind and forces you to focus on the breath.  As you begin to feel more comfortable slow the breath down a little more.  The breath should be easy and even.  You might like to try breathing and counting to the second-hand on a clock – if this feels easy, slow it down further.  Do this for at least 1 minute.


Practice with your eyes closed when possible.  This helps minimise distractions.  Remember, any new skill requires practice.  While this is a fairly easy skill to master, I would suggest you first practice under good conditions, that is when you are not under too much pressure.  Practice twice daily for about a week.  Then, if you feel confident with the technique you can apply it to more challenging conditions, like when you are feeling upset or can’t sleep.

This is a truly portable skill and can be done while feeding, supermarket shopping, sitting at the traffic lights, stirring the pots for dinner, almost anywhere!


About the Author

Dr Bronwyn Leigh is a clinical psychologist, perinatal and infant clinician and early parenting consultant.  She is the Director of the Centre for Perinatal Psychology.  Bronwyn specialises in the psychological aspects of becoming a parent, the emotional development of infants, and parent-infant relationships.

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