I’m sure all of us have paused to take a deep breath when we are stressed, overwhelmed, or upset. Deep breathing is a beneficial technique to help regain composure and control.
The benefits of deep breathing are plenty and can help us all. Today we’re going to discuss the benefits of teaching our sensory kids deep breathing techniques to help calm their nervous systems.
Difficulties processing sensory input can lead to overstimulation, causing increased arousal, and emotional dysregulation or ‘out-of-control’ emotions.
When a child becomes overstimulated or overwhelmed it can cause their nervous system to become heightened. This may trigger the sympathetic nervous system resulting in increased heart rate, respiration, and short shallow breathing, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When you are in this state it’s difficult to engage, focus, listen or follow instructions. Teaching ways to help calm our sympathetic nervous system and trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ system, is helpful in improving self-regulation.
It’s okay to have emotions but sometimes they become too big or loud. In these cases, we need tools to help take back control.
Calming the sympathetic nervous system
Deep breathing is one of the simplest ways to trigger our rest and digest system and help our nervous system to settle down. When you slow down and take a deep breath it signals to the brain that you are ‘ok’ and that you don’t need that fight or flight response to kick in right now.
Let’s think about this. If you are being chased by a lion you want your sympathetic nervous system at full throttle. You want to run as fast as you can to escape, you need your heart pumping, your lungs breathing hard, and your body on full alert. In this situation now is obviously not the time to relax.
But when you’re sitting on the beach watching the waves roll in, taking nice slow breaths it signals to your brain that you are safe, there is no need to be on high alert, and now is the time to relax.
In those moments of overstimulation if you can pause and take a slow, deep breath you can trigger the system that lets you know you are safe, that it’s okay to relax, to drop your shoulders from your ears, and reduce the tightness in your muscles.
This is what we want to encourage for our sensory kiddos that get overstimulated, overwhelmed, and are in that fight or flight mood.
Teaching your kid deep breathing
The first step is working on deep breathing regularly and not during times of stress or overstimulation. As mentioned earlier, during that fight or flight response a child is not able to listen, follow directions, or learn something new. This is not the time to be teaching them.
Set aside 5 minutes every day to practice deep breathing. Do it together (it’s good for all of us!) If your child can learn this technique and make it natural it will be easier to use in those stressful times.
How to deep breath?
We often get in the habit of breathing shallow in our chest. The goal with deep breathing is to work on getting nice deep belly breathes.
Practice taking a deep breath by placing your hands over your belly button. Breath in and let your belly expand. Breath out and let it sink back in. It can be helpful to practice this laying down.
In through the nose out through the mouth
Work on taking a deep breath in through the nose, imagine you our smelling a flower or freshly baked cookies. Then breath out through the mouth, like your blowing out birthday candles. This is called pursed-lipped breathing.
5 different techniques
- Mountain breathing. I really enjoy this one, it seems to work well for most kids because it gives them a good visual and a little bit of movement. To perform: hold up one hand fingers spread apart. Use the index finger from your other hand to trace up and down your fingers (mountains). As you trace up a finger you breathe in, and as you trace down you breathe out. Pausing at the top and bottom of each finger. Continue down all your fingers.
- Wave breathing. Done while laying on your back. Place your hands over your belly button, or have your kid hold a stuffed animal on their bell. Breathe in raising your belly, your hands or stuffed animal will rise. Breathe out letting your belly, hands, or stuffed animal lower. Making a wave (up/down) motion with the belly.
- Box breathing. This gives another good visual for deep breathing. Breathe in for 4 seconds. Hold that in-breath for 4 seconds. Breathe out for 4 seconds. Hold that out-breath for 4 seconds. Repeat. You imagine each step as the side of a box. If 4 seconds is too long, start with 2-3 seconds.
- Arms open-close. Start in standing with your arms straight out in front of you. Breathe in while opening your arms to the sides. Breath out while bringing your hands back to the middle.
- Counting. Sometimes simple is good. Breathe in while counting to 4, pause, breath out while counting to 4.
When learning to deep breathe you may not be able to perform many breathes in a row. It will take time to learn how to control your breath. Be patient, start with 5-10 breaths and increase as able.
Putting it into action
The first step is to practice, practice, practice. Deep breathing has to become natural and second nature. Your child needs a good understanding of how to perform before you can put it into action.
Be proactive and talk with your child about what deep breathing can help with. Discuss a recent event that happened where your child became overwhelmed. Talk about how pausing to take some deep breaths will help them regain control and settle their emotions.
Then in times of challenges, gently cue and assist your child to use the techniques you’ve practiced. This won’t happen successfully right away, but in time your child will learn how to use deep breathing as a wonderful tool.
When we are overstimulated and our emotions are getting out of control it is difficult to make good decisions. It will take time for deep breathing to become natural enough for your child that they can successfully use it. But they may also surprise you. Many kids I work with seem to catch on to the benefits of deep breathing much easier than adults. They recognize how good it feels and are happy to have a new helpful tool!