Our bodies do so much automatically, without a single conscious thought—our lungs inhale and exhale, our hearts beat, our eyes blink and much more. So it can be easy to forget the control we have over one of these functions when we need it the most.
“Breathing can be so powerful,” Zee Clarke, a mindfulness and breathwork teacher and author of Black People Breathe: A Mindfulness Guide to Racial Healing, told Seasons. “It is so simple … but it can change your entire world.”
“When we are stressed what happens is the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. That’s the fight, flight or freeze response,” she explained. This response can cause sweating, a racing heart, inflated emotions; it may cause us to say or do things we normally wouldn’t, and we may even forget to breathe when we need our breath the most. “It’s scary in the moment when your heart is racing and your breath is short. It feels like we’re not in control.”
Clarke, who trained in India, wants caregivers to know that they can use breathwork to regain balance when it feels like the world is happening to them. “We have agency around how we feel.”
Pump the brakes with breathing breaks
“The parasympathetic nervous system is like the brakes,” she said, explaining that breathing practices empower us to pump those brakes and take back control in stressful situations. She encourages caregivers to take short breaks throughout their day – just a minute or two at a time – to concentrate on those practices.
Clarke recommends two techniques for this purpose: box breathing and three-part breath. She explained that box breathing is used by a variety of people in high-stress positions – such as nurses and Navy SEALs – because it helps create a solid foundation, while the three-part breath is meant for grounding. Setting a timer on your phone for two minutes can ensure you follow the practice long enough for it to take effect.
- Inhale through the nose for a count of four
- Hold for a count of four
- Exhale through the nose for four
- Hold for another four
- Exhale completely
- Inhale—purposefully feeling the breath come in through your throat, pass through to your chest and then your belly
- Exhale—purposefully feeling the breath go up from your belly, then your chest and then out through your throat
Breathing through high-stress care
Sometimes the actual care you provide can be extremely stressful, such as when a loved one with dementia is combative over bathing or taking medication. In this case, Clarke offers two techniques to breathe through the stress: belly breathing and the extra-long exhale.
“The simplest practice is an extra-long exhalation,” she said. “You’ll notice your shoulders immediately come down and everything happening in your body will calm down.” Since this technique is effective for imposter syndrome it can be helpful for caregivers who are doubting their worth or experiencing a lot of negative self-talk as well.
Extra-long exhales are just what they sound like—exhaling for an extra long count to calm the sympathetic nervous system. To practice this technique:
- Exhale slowly to a count of three
- Inhale normally
- Exhale again slowly to three
Belly breathing is as simple as focusing your inhalation on your belly instead of your chest, expanding it like a balloon. Clarke explained that this can seem counterintuitive since we are conditioned to sucking in our gut, but, “Sticking your belly out stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.”
Start your day out right
In addition to breathing techniques, Clarke encourages caregivers to be intentional with how they start and end their days. “I talk about morning and evening routines because they’re definitely something I think people should prioritize.”
She suggests that caregivers start their day with a morning check-in with themselves – such as “Good morning, Zee! How are you doing?” – and setting an intention for the rest of the day. Instead of looking at your phone first thing – with all of the notifications and news feeds that can lead to a negative start – consider:
- Making a list of three things you are grateful for
- Journaling — “It allows nighttime thoughts a place and a space”
- Meditation or prayer
Ending on the right note
Many caregivers can find themselves stressed, frustrated and anxious by the end of their day. Family dynamics can be difficult – no matter how much you love mom and dad – and aging parents can be overly critical, resistant to care or necessary lifestyle changes, and capable of taking their own frustrations out on others just like anyone else.
“Caregivers love parents so much but their parents also frustrate them so much,” Clarke said. She offered two techniques for letting go after the day’s caregiving tasks are done: squeeze and release for releasing frustrations and 4-7-8 breathing for calming anxiety.
- Inhale deeply
- Squeeze and tighten all of your muscles (arms, legs, butt, fists, face, etc.)
- Hold for three counts
- Exhale with a huge sigh
- Repeat three times
- Inhale for four counts
- Hold for seven
- Exhale for eight
Clarke described 4-7-8 breathing as perfect for trouble sleeping and what-if anxiety, such as, “When you’ve left the situation, settled in for the day, but you worry what about tomorrow?” Additionally, she offered these important reminders:
- Go to sleep at the same time every night.
- Put your phone on “do not disturb.”
- Do one thing that you love in the evening such as read or take a bath.
- Have a family ritual or routine.
“I would definitely recommend a sound bath for caregivers in the wind-down period, to remove yourself from the stressful situation,” she said. Sound baths are an immersive meditative experience. Clarke has a 20-minute sound bath available on her YouTube channel.