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About Mind/Body Consultant Services & Protocols

Protocols: Breathing Techniques

A General Introduction

Most people, caught up in the hurricane of modern life don't have time and money to spare to learn a complex exercise discipline. They need advice they simple can inhale. "Just breath" fills that bill. Breathing exercise works.

"No one really knows how or why breathing (exercise) helps relax people, whether it is the actual control of the breath or whether it is the psychodynamics of shutting down external stimuli," says Norman Edeiman, a physician specializing in lung diseases and a consultant to the American Lung Association. But he has no doubt that "relaxation techniques work and they are useful."

Mind-body medicine specialist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who runs the nation's largest meditation-based stress-reduction clinic at University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Care Center in Worcester says that after clients with all kinds of physical and psychological ailments complete his eight-week course, "they all say the useful stress-reduction skill they learned was breathing."

They may begin with simple sensory exercises such as trying to taste a breath, the way one can taste a raisin, or to sense it moving through the entire body.

"This way, you come to a whole new level of awareness. Every breath, actually, is a release not only of air, but all the pent-up energy in the body," he says. "Every in-breath can be restoration or revitalization, and every out-breath a letting-go of anxiety or anger or tension or irritability."

Unless you hyperventilate to the extreme, any generally healthy person can use just about any technique for breathing and feel, at least momentarily, a little more relaxed. You can practice in your sleep. In fact, you always do, says Philip Clifford, a respiratory physiologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "Our breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, it goes without conscious input. This is why we breathe properly while we sleep."

While breathing in a certain pattern can distract you, like waving a toy in front of a tot throwing a tantrum, Clifford says there's no need for complicated formulas.

"You can't go wrong with breathing," Clifford says. Don't underestimate the value of simple distraction, of standing still for 24 seconds and turning your mind away from chaos, says Richard Swenson, author of The Overload Syndrome (Nay-Press, $18).

Swenson, a family-practice physician who takes a Christian spiritual perspective on his advice, uses an 8-8-8 breath formula: Breathe in for eight seconds. Hold your breath for eight seconds. Exhale to the same count. "I read about it years ago," he says.

"I don't know how or why it works, but it takes less than 30 seconds for you to find out for yourself It's a way of slowing yourself down. Every human has limits, and you will have pain and dysfunction when you are on overload, even if your indicator lights don't go off right away." He recommends using the time for spiritual refreshment. "Meditation and contemplation have been mainstays of philosophy, theology and faith for thousands of years. But we don't have reflective time today to realize we've lost our reflective time," Swenson says. "It's not a coincidence that the major wisdom traditions have all used breathing exercises to enlighten and develop consciousness and tranquility," says Michael Mahoney, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Texas and a sports psychologist working with elite athletes.

Most people keep their breathing rituals simple: They count breaths or say certain words with each inhalation or exhalation until the chatter in their multitasking minds recedes to the background. Taking time to breathe deliberately, mindfully, "is not like a New Year's resolution to do 30 sit-ups a day," Mahoney says. It's a kind of self-care ritual that you can do quickly, quietly, privately, anywhere, any time.

Breathing Basics

Sports psychologist Michael Mahoney offers some can't miss suggestions for quieting the chaos in your mind, if not in your life. Breathing can help you to:

"What it does for athletes, for any of us, is to bring us back to our bodies," Mahoney says. "We spend so much of our lives above the neck. By coming back to a simple essential, you check in with yourself and think, 'What do I really need to be doing?'"

Specific Techniques

After reading through the list of various breathing techniques below and visualizing the exercises, you may wish to choose two or three to try out on your own. Eventually you may settle on one (or a combination of several) that you like best and then practice that on a daily and, or as needed basis. One thing to keep in mind before you start. All breathing techniques should be done slowly gently. If you breath rapidly you may cause yourself to hyperventilate and this can trigger anxiety. Calm and even breathing will achieve the best results in all situations.

Technique #1: Misogi Breathing

Misogi breathing is a traditional Japanese technique for calming and centering prior to engaging in martial arts practices such as tai clii and aikido.

Sit in comfortable position. Kneeling is traditional Japanese form, but not necessary.

Technique #2: Alternating Breath

Alternate Breathing is a yoga technique that is especially helpful for those with anxiety difficulties, panic and depression. You can practice alternate breathing in any situation.

All of the breathing in this exercise is done through the nose and not the mouth.

Holding your right nostril closed breath in through your left nostril.

Techniques #3-7

The following five breathing exercises are suggested by Dr. Andrew Weil, a noted mind/body healthcare authority.

Through these exercises you can learn to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, circulation and digestion by consciously changing the rhythm and depth of breathing.

Observe the breath.

Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, loosening any tight clothing. Focus your attention on your breathing without trying to influence it in any way.

Follow the contours of the cycle through inhalation and exhalation and see if you can perceive the points at which one phase changes into the other. Do this for at least a few minutes.

Start with exhalation.

Breathing is continuous, with no beginning or end, but we tend to think of one breath as beginning with an inhalation and ending with an exhalation.

Let yourself be breathed

This exercise is best done while lying on your back, so you might want to try it while falling asleep or on waking. Close the eyes, let your arms rest along-side your body, and focus attention on the breath without trying to influence.

Take a stimulating breath.

Sit comfortably with the back straight, eyes closed. Place the tongue in the yogic position touching the tip of the tongue to the backs of the upper front teeth, then slide it just above the teeth until it rests on the alvolar ridge, the soft tissue between the teeth and the roof of the mouth. Keep it there during the whole exercise.

Once you can do the bellows breath for a full minute, try using it instead of caffeine as a pick-me-up it can be particularly useful when you feel sleepy while driving on the highway.

Take a relaxing breath.

Then exhale audibly through the mouth to a count of eight. Repeat for a total of four cycles, then breathe normally.

Do it twice a day. After one month, if it agrees with you, increase to eight cycles twice a day.

You can also practice this yoga breathing exercise morning and evening.

Sit upright on a cushion or a firm chair with your head, neck and body aligned.

Technique #8: A Breathing Exercise To Improve Your Digestion

Digestive breathing is a simple but effective practice that can often help promote digestion. This exercise is based on using your hands to stimulate energy points related to the spleen and stomach meridians (energy pathways described in Chinese medicine), while you simultaneously breathe deep into your belly.

Sit on a firm chair with your spine erect, yet relaxed, and your feet fiat on the floor in front of you. Place your hands on your knees with the heel of your hands above your kneecaps and your fingers pointed downward. Use your fingers, especially your index finger, middle finger, and ring finger, to find three indentations in your knee where the fingers can comfortably fit. Your middle finger will be over the center of the kneecap. Now simply keep your hands there, using just a slight pressure to stimulate the meridians running through the knee area. Sense the warmth going into your knees from your hands. As you inhale, sense that you are breathing energy gently into your expanding belly. As you exhale, sense your belly naturally contracting. Do not use force. Work with your breathing in this way for at least five minutes after each meal, or any time you have minor digestive problems.

Technique #9: Controlled Breathing

This technique occupies a very important place in traditional Indian health systems, including stress management. In fact, an entire discipline of controlled breathing called "Pranayama" was developed in ancient India to develop enhanced breathing techniques. You can learn Pranayama from a specially trained teacher, but in the mean while, here is a simple, basic lesson: As you know, your breathing is generally shallower and faster in times of stress, and deeper and slower when you are relaxed. But the interesting fact is that by consciously breathing deeper and more slowly, you can actually alter your state of mind to a calmer, more relaxed state. Here is how you can use controlled breathing to manage stress:

A slight variant on this exercise - for use when you are under stress at a meeting or in a traffic jam - is to do it with your eyes open. Once perfected, you can practice this anywhere. This controlled breathing exercise is also strongly recommended for occasions when you are racking your brains for a solution to a problem. (Remember the best ideas hit you when you are totally relaxed.)

Technique #10: Kaiser Permanente's: Stress Management Deep Breathing

The purpose of the deep breathing technique is to replace the rapid, shallow breathing caused by stress with long, deep breaths using all of your lung capacity. Many people find that something as simple as a deep breathing exercise done 1-2 minutes several times a day for 5-6 weeks can relieve many stressful feelings. Try this exercise first alone and away from any distractions. Once you feel comfortable with the technique, you can do your deep breathing exercise almost anywhere.

Caution: If you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or begin to hyperventilate at any time during this breathing exercise, slow your breathing to normal. Wait until the symptoms have subsided, then rise slowly.

Technique #11: The Breath of Life

Breath is a necessity of life. Each breath you take is a small miracle of chemistry and physics, yet most people never think about breathing unless the air is polluted or they have asthma or allergies. They take the everyday miracle of breathing for granted.

Take a moment to pay grateful attention to the breath of life:

Like all movement in your body, breathing is powered by muscle-your diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that divides your midsection in half, separating your chest from your stomach. Each time you inhale, your diaphragm flexes downward, pushing out your stomach a little and expanding your lungs and chest cavity. When you draw air in through your nose, it is warmed to body temperature, humidified, and partially cleansed.

Your lungs are like an upside-down tree with many branches called bronchi, and leaves, called alveoli. The alveoli expand like little balloons when air enters your lungs. Each little balloon is surrounded by tiny capillaries blood vessels that suck in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide with each breath.

All your red blood cells travel through you lungs on every trip around your body. Each time they zip through your lungs they pick up life-giving oxygen and drop off the waste product, carbon dioxide.

When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, squeezing most of the air out of your lungs, carrying away the carbon dioxide and clearing the way for the next life-sustaining breath of oxygen.

When you're under stress, you tense your stomach muscles, interfering with the full, natural movement of your diaphragm. You may compensate by "chest breathing"-making up for the limited range of diaphragm movement by using your shoulder and chest muscles to expand your rib cage. This is an inefficient way of breathing that further increases your tension.

To become more aware of the beauty and calming aspect of the breath of life, try this breath-counting technique:

Lie down on your back and raise your knees a little to take the strain off your lower back and abdomen. You can close your eyes or just gaze at the ceiling in an unfocused way.

Take slow, deep breaths into your stomach, making it rise and fall with each breath. Don't strain to overfill your lungs-just make them comfortably full.

Pay attention to each part of the breath: the inhale, the turn (the point at which you stop inhaling and start exhaling), the exhale, the pause between breaths, and so on.

When you've developed a smooth rhythm, begin counting your breaths. As you exhale, say, "One." Continue counting on each exhalation up to four. Then begin again with "One." You may become so relaxed that your mind wanders and you lose track. When this happens, start over with "One."

That's all there is to it. This is the simplest possible way to relax. When you are ready to stop breath counting, tell yourself, "I am grateful for the miracle of breathing. I can relax myself this way any time I want."

Technique #12: Deep Breathing

Deep, abdominal breathing is among the most powerful stress-reduction techniques ever devised. Used properly, it's as effective as Valium and a whole lot faster. It only takes five or six deep breaths to begin reversing a tension spiral. That's because deep breathing stretches and relaxes your diaphragm, the muscle most affected by stress. As your diaphragm relaxes it sends an "all's well" message to your brain, which becomes a signal for your whole body to release tension.

As stress and abdominal tension increase, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Your breathe mostly in your upper chest. For some people this leads to hyperventilation and the feeling that they can't get enough air. Shallow breathing also changes your blood gasses so the oxygen to carbon dioxide ration gets out of balance. At best you feel tired, at worst you can get panicked. All this is corrected by slow abdominal breaths that help turn off anxiety by giving you more air.

When you first learn deep, abdominal breathing, it helps to do the exercise lying down. Later you can do it in any posture, virtually any time you need to relax.

Start by putting one hand on your chest, and one on your abdomen (just above your navel). Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Try to direct the breath downward into your belly, so it pushes up the hand resting on your abdomen. The hand on your chest shouldn't move much at all. Exhale through your mouth making a quiet whooshing sound.

If you have difficulty breathing into your abdomen, and the hand on your belly doesn't rise, there are several things you can try. Press your hand down on your abdomen as you exhale and then breathe in to push your hand back up. Or, put a phone book on your abdomen at your navel and breathe so that it rises and falls. Another possibility is to lie on your stomach and breathe so that your lower back moves up and down.

If the hand on your chest is rising along with your belly, try pressing with that hand. Direct your breath down and away from the pressure on your chest.

Once you've mastered the deep, abdominal breath, use it any time you feel stress or tension. Take long, slow, deep breaths that raise and lower your abdomen. Breathe only when you need to, to avoid hyperventilation. Focus on the sound and feeling of breathing as you become more and more relaxed. Continue deep breathing for two to five minutes.

Technique #13: Autogenic Breathing

Have you noticed how heavy your body can feel when you are deeply relaxed? Psychiatrist Johannes Schultz used that simple fact to develop one of the most effective stress-reduction methods ever conceived. He found that by merely reimagining your arms and legs becoming heavy, you could release most of your body's tension and achieve a deep calm. The image of heaviness sends a message to your muscles to relax and let go.

Schultz discovered something else that you may find helpful. When you imagine that your arms and legs are getting warmer - as if, for example, you were lying in the sun - your whole body not only relaxes, but your blood pressure decreases. That's because images of warmth relax the walls of your capillaries and allow your blood to flow with less constriction.

In Autogenic Breathing, you use your imagination to create feelings of warmth and heaviness in your limbs. Let your mind travel to the warm beach, where the weight of the sand gently pressing on your arms and legs calms you and relaxes every muscle in your body.

Begin by taking some slow, deep breaths. Let them go way down into your abdomen. Allow the feeling of relaxation to deepen with each breath.

Now imagine you're at the beach. You can see the seagulls wheeling overhead and you can hear their calls. The waves are rolling up the sand. The surf roars and then grows quiet, rushing in and then receding. Let yourself be lulled by the roar...quiet... roar of the waves.

Now feel the warm sand. Imagine it pleasantly covering your body. Feel the weight of the sand as it covers your arms and legs. Feel the comfort of its warmth. Warm and heavy. Let the feelings deepen for a while, clearly imagining the sand on your arms and legs. Warm and heavy.

Continue to breathe deeply, finding the relaxation in every breath. Notice the rhythm of your breathing. And as you breathe in, think the word "warm," Really concentrate on feeling the warm sand around your body. As you breathe out, think the word "heavy." Focus on the weight of the sand on your arms and legs.

Continue your deep breathing, thinking "warm," as you inhale and "heavy," as you exhale. Maintain the image of the beach, feeling your limbs as warm and heavy, for three to five minutes.

Technique #14: The Alternating-Your-Breath

Everyone observes rituals, even the most pragmatic, scientific, skeptical people. You may not practice formal rituals, like the Catholic Mass or Islamic bowing toward Mecca, but you undoubtedly repeat certain small actions that help you get through the day and hold the fabric of your life together.

Some rituals are just habits of convenience, like how you load the dishwasher or arrange your desk. Some are superstitions, like knocking on wood after an overoptimistic statement. Others have talismanic significance known only to you, like the vase in the hall that must have fresh flowers, or the three waggies and a deep breath that must precede every golf swing.

It's good to have a ritual to fall back on when you're under stress and need to relax. You come to associate certain actions and situations as signals to relax: slipping a classical CD into the player, taking your shoes off, loosening your tie, putting your feet up on the desk, lying down flat on your back, and so on. All these simple actions can focus your attention away from external stressors and onto the relaxation process.

Sometimes you can't take off your shoes or lie down. Other times you can get physically comfortable, but your mind still won't calm down and focus on relaxation. In those cases, you can try this alternate breathing ritual, adapted from a Yoga technique. It works well anywhere, anytime, as long as your nose isn't stuffed up. The idea is simple: you breathe first through one nostril, then the other.

There's nothing magic or profound about alternating breath. It just makes you concentrate on your breathing, which is a core method of meditation. It also gives you enough to do with your hand, closing one nostril and then the other, so that you're distracted from your normal train of thought and forced to focus on one thing at a time. And that's another core idea of meditation. Alternating your breath also helps you relax.

The steps are simple.

Technique #15: Complete Breath Exercise

Here, from the ancient wisdom of India, is a way of doing enlivening. full-lung breathing.

Sit or stand in a comfortable position, emptying your lungs as fully as possible by exhaling through the nose as you pull your abdomen in as far as you can. Hold this for five seconds.

Inhale slowly through your nose, pushing your abdomen way out to let air enter the lower part of your lungs which are usually underused. Continue the slow inhalation by also expanding your chest as far as possible and then raising your shoulders as high as possible, thus allowing air to enter the higher area of your lungs. Hold the breath in your lungs for a count of five, allowing the oxygen in the air to be fully absorbed.

Now, slowly exhale as deeply as you can, relaxing your shoulders and chest and contracting your abdomen to expel as much waste-laden air as you can. Hold this for five seconds.

Repeat the whole breath cycle ten times or so, pausing between cycles if necessary. Be aware of how full of energy your body feels when you finish.

Practice this deep, natural, unblocked breathing for several days in succession until it becomes automatic.

Technique #16: Energizing-Healing Breathing Exercise

As you practice the complete breathing exercise, close your eyes and see a moving picture in your imagination of the fresh oxygen flowing throughout your body, energizing each cell as you inhale.

Pick a part of your body that is tense, tired, or in some discomfort or pain.

Imagine that you are breathing in and out though that part in a very focused way. Let each inhalation bring healing energy and each exhalation carry away tensions, impurities, and pain, gradually leaving that part of your body refreshed, cleansed and healed.

When you have a headache or your mind feels fuzzy, try this method of energizing breathing. If you feel anxiety, keep breathing through it deeply and intentionally and see what happens. You may discover why Fritz Perls, the father of gestalt therapy, once said that the difference between fear and excitement is breathing.

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