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Why Breathing Exercises Don't Work (and what to do instead)

Updated: May 30, 2023

Ever been really stressed out and someone tells you to just "Breathe!"? How did that go over?

Like a brick?

A lead balloon?

Yeah. Just telling someone to calm down and breathe is rarely effective.


It's a misuse of breathing exercises. Breathing exercises work best when we are already calm. GROUNDING exercises work when we are stressed.

Meaning is made from the connections we understand between two ideas. If someone has no experience or little experience with breathing exercises, they will not find meaning or make sense of that experience while under stress. Sure, they will understand it on a simple level having had quiet breathing at some point in the past, but it will never be as effective for them as it would be for someone who has great experience with deep breathing.

We must then look for alternatives.

The best skill I've found in those situations is that of orientation. We are constantly orienting ourselves to space and time, so this is a readily accessible skill.

To orient to the space around you,

1) Find 5 things that are red

2) Find 4 things that are blue

3) Find 3 things that are green

4) Find 2 things that are yellow

5) Find 1 thing that is white.

This is a simple exercise to lead someone through (or lead yourself through) when they are stressed and do not have experience with breathing exercises.

You can also be proactive. Those who are familiar with breathing exercises understand that value of having that tool available in times of stress. I've used it many times. In those moments, I am reminded of when I practice yoga or tai chi or enjoy quiet moments at home. Those are times when I was intentional about creating a space and time that was peaceful, where I could feel relaxed, and slow my breathing and control it. It's another tool available to me because I have strategized for future stressors.

Breathing exercises are important, but orientation exercises are usually more effective for people who do not have experiences with breathing exercises. In the meantime, it's a great idea to practice breathing exercises so that it will be available to you during your next time of stress.

Want to learn more exercises?

Let's talk.


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