The Power of Breathwork
Over the summer, I had the honor of sitting down with Leslie Toner, a psychotherapist, anxiety specialist, educator, wellness coach, and certified breathwork facilitator, for a one-on-one conversation to learn more about the health benefits of breathwork. Her advice is simple but powerful. Regardless of age, anyone can learn about how to control reactions to stress through the power of breathing. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
Bernadette: Well, I’m so thrilled to talk with you today. I learned about your great work using breathwork to help clients heal and find clarity in their lives. Please talk more about breathwork—how it can help a person manage stress and help a parent help a child.
Leslie: Breathwork is amazing. It is a bit unknown here on the East Coast. It is more popular on the West Coast. It is a conscious and intentional breathing pattern that, when practiced, intentionally and specifically, can activate one’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming nervous system. Breathwork can become a person’s superpower. It can put a person in a calm frame of mind to react to challenges intentionally and calmly.
I regularly talk with my clients about how our breath truly is our superpower. When you learn these breathwork techniques, you know how to—in any moment—activate that calming center in your brain. So many of us were never taught emotion regulation skills in childhood. It’s never too late to learn these skills—they’re transformational.
I know I did not learn these skills as a child. Now, as a therapist, I love sharing these tools and practices to help families. When we can make our emotions better fit with our kids’ emotions, we can avoid being reactive and triggered. Learning about breathwork and how to calm my nervous system when my teenage child is triggered, wow, it really helped to weather those storms.
Bernadette: Thank you for sharing your experience, Leslie. Would you mind talking a bit more about how a newcomer to breathwork can begin?
Leslie: Yes. So, the first step is awareness. If we’re not aware of our body’s sensations and that triggering feeling, it’s tough to change it. So, the first step is awareness and recognizing the sensations in our body when we start to feel triggered. For me, the feeling starts in my belly, and it moves to my head. So, pay attention to what your body is feeling when triggered. Start to connect with that and know that you can control that triggered feeling with your breath.
In the past, I would just let that emotional reaction come out. When we are triggered, we become reactive to our children. We’re really coming from a place of emotional dysregulation.
When we consciously choose to pause, utilize the power of our breath, we can change our emotional landscape from being reactive to responsive. We have the option to make a better choice of how we want to respond to challenging situations. An easy breath to do is inhaling through your nose for four counts and then exhaling slowly out your mouth, as if you’re breathing through a straw, for six counts.
–Breathe in through the nose for four counts
–Slowly exhale out your mouth for six counts
This breathing pattern signals the vagus nerve to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system and release the calming chemicals in our body. In contrast, when our nervous system is activated, we’re in a fight or flight response, and the opposite happens. That signal goes to our brain to dump cortisol and adrenaline, and all of the stress hormones.
Bernadette: You’re right; we need to educate ourselves about the power we have within ourselves to have the best outcome in any given situation. Do you have any examples from your own life or from a client’s life where they practiced this, and it did change the trajectory of something in their lives?
Leslie: Yes! Implementing a conscious breathwork practice has helped me and my clients relieve stress and anxiety, improve sleep and digestion, improve creativity and mental focus, and improve energy and overall feelings of psychological and physical wellness.
That’s what I love—helping other people achieve this higher level of self-awareness and mental and physical wellness.
Bernadette: Clearly, you’re practicing what you’re preaching. Have you seen your child also using breathwork techniques? Does breathwork help her cope better? Young adults’ lives are so stressful these days. They have suffered so many losses because of this pandemic.
Leslie: She has. Growing up as a child and having a therapist as your mom, there have been many years where she rejected my advice regarding improving mental wellness and the different things that we can do to take care of ourselves, which is funny. I admit I hurt a little bit in those moments.
As my daughter has gotten older, she has recognized that breathwork, meditation, yoga, and movement are so important to our overall mental wellness.
I ask myself each day, what can I do for my mind, body, and soul today to be my best for myself and others? She has started doing this as well.
Bernadette: Please give some tips for young adults navigating big transitions in their lives. I know many of your clients are young adults.
Absolutely. Breathwork is like active management of your nervous system. It’s important to practice it at least three times a day. Begin with just three minutes, three times per day, and see how you feel. I find young adults prefer breathwork over meditation many times. Breathwork actively calms your nervous system. Whereas if you just sit and meditate and don’t know how to calm your nervous system, the desired result is not achieved. That can be a very frustrating process.
Breathwork gets the mind offline. I think so many of us look externally for distraction or numbing, and really, the key is learning how to turn inward. You see your true self through that work of calming the mind, the body, and really listening to your intuition. Breathwork can lead you on a journey to heightened self-discovery.
I love working with younger adults because they have fewer habits and patterns that are ingrained. They tend to be more receptive to change, trying new things. Many people don’t come in for therapy or counseling until their midlife and have these “aha” moments. They wish they knew about breathwork and other emotional wellbeing tools 20 years ago. So it’s just so great to get these tools, these practices, and this knowledge into the hands of younger adults now.
Also, I think as families—and I know for myself—our children are watching, and they’re modeling our behavior. We as families can possess and utilize the best tools to address our difficulties, stress, and conflict.
Bernadette: Talk more about the practical applications of breathwork. You are so great about practicing what you’ve been discussing with me today. How have you, on a day-to-day basis, brought breathwork into your life? Has it become a daily habit for you, and how did you do that?
Yes, it has. At first, before I found out about breathwork, I tried meditating. It didn’t work for me. I have struggled with anxiety. But I found that I could calm my nervous system with my breath, with breathwork, which absolutely changed everything.
So I do practice breathwork each day. I have a morning routine where I’ll do 15 minutes of breath and five minutes or so of journaling. Then I do about 5 minutes of free-form stretching, just kind of whatever my body needs at that moment.
So it’s not very long. It’s about 30 minutes—and boy does that set up my day. If I don’t do it, I notice I am a little bit more stressed and anxious as I go about my day versus the times that I take 30 minutes to calm my nervous system, to pour into my mind and body, and set intentions on how I want to show up in my day.
Bernadette: That’s so great. Did you build up to half an hour each day?
Leslie: Yes. It was a gradual process.
I’ll tell some of my clients, can you do one minute, three times a day? It’s important to start before you get out of bed—a minute before you open your eyes in the morning before you get out of bed. It’s not as effective after you have opened your eyes. I would open my eyes, and suddenly, my mind would be racing about all the things that I needed to get done that day.
If you want to extend it to five minutes—great. Whatever you can do, but at least one minute to just calm that nervous system.
After a minute or so, open your eyes. Then I would set an intention for the day, and I would ask myself, how do I want to show up to that event on my calendar? How do I want to show up today? By doing that practice, we actually start to build new neural pathways with the mind-body connection. We’re reprogramming our minds. Because again, if our brain is stuck in an overwhelmed, stress cycle, where stressful thoughts will trigger anxiety, we’re continuing to be stuck in that conditioning. We have to reprogram the mind.
There will be times when you catch yourself in your day–when you slide into old patterns. It’s crucial just gently to move yourself back. Anyone can learn to have a different relationship with anxiety and stress. By calming that nervous system and restarting, you can make different choices at any given moment throughout your day.
Bernadette: That’s amazing. Something that stuck with me is “we can have a different relationship with anxiety and stress.” When I heard that, it was an eye-opening thought–that you have control over your relationship with anxiety and stress.
Leslie: Yes, it’s true. When you start to have this awareness, you can ask, “what role is stress currently playing in my life now?” For many, it becomes the driver of your life, thoughts, actions, and behaviors. So when we start to pull back and say, okay, through breathwork, calming my nervous system through reprogramming my subconscious beliefs, I can be in the driver’s seat; I am the driver of how I relate to stress.
This is so empowering when we can learn that and be in control. It’s life changing.
Bernadette: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Leslie: I want to encourage everyone, especially young adults, to take action. Thinking about it isn’t enough; you must take that one step, take action for anything to change. I encourage people to practice breathwork, commit to 30 days of it.
Bernadette: That’s great. Committing to 30 days of starting with three minutes, three times a day.
Leslie: Nothing’s going to change unless you take action.
I hope fellow UMass Amherst families and their student will try breathwork. It can help anyone successfully handle stressful moments in relationships, manage time, navigate work life, college life, and most importantly, how we see ourselves in the world.
As Leslie said, we can control our relationship with stress and anxiety.
Committing to the 30 day challenge of daily breathwork has improved my life. Take the challenge and feel better!
Bernadette Carr is a co-chair and a member of the UMass Amherst Parents Advisory Council and a parent of two UMass students.
Leslie Toner MSW, LICSW is a licensed therapist with 25 years of experience as a psychotherapist, anxiety specialist, educator & wellness coach. She is also a Certified Breathwork Facilitator. She can be reached at www.leslietonercounselingwellness.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.