Being highly sensitive means that we can be prone to getting stuck in our heads, overwhelmed by our emotions, and preoccupied by physical sensations. There are many ways to counteract these tendencies, but one of the simplest is through breathwork, intentionally using our breath to change our experiences. In this article, I share five helpful breathwork styles for the highly sensitive person.
Noticing our breathing can be helpful for shifting us out of feeling stuck in deep thoughts or strong feelings. It can help us change the way we pay attention to our bodies. Breathwork can be especially useful if you can’t sleep, have pain or uncomfortable sensations, are in an undesirable physical state like being cold or hungry, or if you are ignoring your body because attending to it feels problematic or threatening.
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A healthy baby is a great model of what our breath is supposed to be: fully into the abdomen, rhythmic, and predictable. Breathing becomes faster and shallower when a baby is activated, then slows and deepens as the baby calms.
Many of us lose touch with our original ways of breathing. We might develop a habit of holding our breath in response to emotional or physical pain. Perhaps we pant in anticipation. We might hold so much tension in our bodies that we are unable to breathe fully into our abdomens or we take jerky, irregular breaths as if our shoulders are pulling in air.
Relearning to breathe in the way our bodies are intended to work can help our nervous systems regulate. This regulation helps to reduce fight-or-flight responses and moves us into the rest-and-digest state. We then can think calmly, slow down our thoughts, ease our emotions, and release physical tension.
Breathwork practices can help us relearn to breathe in ways that support our well-being. You may already have encountered breathwork as part of your religious practices, learning to perform music, or as part of athletic training. But you don’t need to become a yogi or an opera singer to benefit from breathwork.
You can start with much simpler breathwork practices. The key is to aim for consistency so that you’re regularly training your breath during times when you are already calm and focused. Then you are more likely to be able to consciously choose to use a breathwork practice when your mind, emotions, or body are dysregulated.
A Few Cautions Before Starting Breathwork
Some cautions for any breathwork: be sure to follow all medical recommendations and don’t do anything that might contradict what your medical providers advise for you. Breathwork isn’t designed to diagnose or treat any kind of mental or physical wellness, so it should never replace any other treatment you are receiving.
Take care to practice breathwork only as you feel able and stop if you feel any discomfort, lightheadedness, dizziness, etc. Also, be sure not to do breathwork when you are driving, operating heavy machinery, or if it would potentially be dangerous if you were to fall asleep (for example, if you are alone with a small child, using a stove, burning a candle, etc.).
With all that said, breathwork is easy to “reverse” by simply allowing your breath to return to an automatic process. Stop paying attention to it. Do something engaging. Let your body take over the survival function of breathing.
When you are ready to practice some breathwork exercises, here are five that I recommend for HSPs. You might feel drawn to one or more of them, and it’s perfectly acceptable to choose your favorites to regularly use. It’s also fine to adjust them so that they suit your needs and preferences. It’s more important that you use them consistently than that you do them perfectly according to some arbitrary instructions.
#1 – Mindful Breathing Breathwork Style
If you are familiar with mindfulness, this can be a great place to start. Mindful breathing involves noticing your breathing, without judging it or trying to change it. Many people choose to focus on a part of their body involved with breathing, such as the nostrils or the diaphragm, and simply notice how that body part experiences breathing.
The beauty of mindful breathing is that you can do it any time it’s safe to take your attention away from what’s happening around you and focus on your breath. You don’t have to pressure yourself to change anything, just notice what is happening.
On the downside, mindful breathing may not be right for you if you want to consciously change your breathing (although many people do notice themselves breathing more slowly and deeply after paying attention to their breath for a time). Many people also struggle to keep their attention on their breath, especially if their minds are active.
As HSPs, our tendency to be deep, persistent thinkers can sometimes make it hard to stay mindful, although there is much to be gained by learning to continually redirect our attention to our breath.
#2 – 4-Square Breathing, Sometimes Called “Box” Breathing Breathwork Style
If you are looking for a more structured approach to breathwork than mindful breathing, I recommend starting with 4-square breathing. You will count to 4 as you: inhale; hold your breath; exhale; pause; and repeat this cycle.
People who like 4-square breathing appreciate that it has a rhythm that is easy to sustain. Many people like that counting adds something on which to concentrate and helps prevent them from losing their focus on their breath. On the flip side, some people find it boring to repeatedly count to four, making it easier to get distracted. You’ll have to try it to see how you experience it.
#3 – 4-7-8 Breathing Breathwork Style
Another structured breathwork activity, this one is based on inhaling to a count of 4, holding for a count of 7, and exhaling to a count of 8. The theory is that extending the exhale helps the nervous system to regulate itself.
This style of breathwork has some of the same pros and cons as 4-square breathing, although I have noticed that it can take more practice for people to get the hang of it than other kinds of breathwork. Some people, including me, are not a fan of holding their breath for a count of 7 and/or dislike going from exhaling immediately to inhaling. If this is your experience, pat yourself on the back for trying 4-7-8 breathing and then move on to a different style.
#4 – Circular Breathing Breathwork Style
On the other end of the spectrum from 4-square or 4-7-8 breathing, circular breathing invites you to regulate your breath so that there is no discernable pause between inhale and exhale. You smooth out your breathing as much as possible so that the end of an inhale shifts gently into an exhale, as if your breath were tracing the outline of a circle.
This style of breathwork promotes slow, diaphragmatic breathing that can help the nervous system shift down into a relaxed state. Many people, including me, find this process very pleasant and useful for falling asleep. Other people dislike the way that circular breathing lacks intermediate focal points and aims for uniformity across the inhale-exhale cycle, making it perhaps more difficult to sustain their attention.
#5 – Wave Breathing
I think of wave breathing as combining the best of several styles of breathwork. There are several variations, but the one I use and teach my HSP clients combines imagery and breathing. Visualize gentle waves breaking on the shore of a lake or ocean. Inhale slowly as you watch a wave build. As it crests, allow your breath to peak and then gradually sink into an exhale. As the next wave begins to rise, allow your inhale to follow it. Continue to breathe in sync with the waves. Imagine that the water knows just how slowly you need to breathe in order to relax and feel so good as you watch the waves.
People who enjoy wave breathing may be drawn to the imagery, which offers a focal point that may feel less distracting than the physical, emotional, or mental stimuli they might notice in a pure mindfulness approach. Other people may like the way that the breath smooths out as with circular breathing or enjoy the slight pauses at the top and bottom of each breath as in the 4-square and 4-7-8 breathing.
If you have negative associations with water, you might consider some other repetitive or cyclical imagery to pair with your breathing. I’ve worked with people who visualized the earth revolving, their baby or pet breathing while deeply asleep, or even a piston rising and falling. The content is not as important as finding something that you personally can imagine and watch for a length of time.
The Key to Breathwork Success
In my Singularly Sensitive approach for HSPs, I emphasize that each of us are unique, so we need to figure out how to tailor strategies to our individuality. The same is true with breathwork. I’m less concerned about what style of breathwork a client chooses to use than I am with how consistently they can make a habit of practicing it and whether it is at least somewhat enjoyable. After all, most of us have a hard time sticking to practices that are enjoyable, let alone something that we dislike, no matter how much they might be “good” for us.
Experiment with these breathwork styles, tweak them to suit you better and see what you like. You may find your preferences changing over time as you and your life circumstances change. Be willing to adjust to find what fits for you. When you take this approach to breathwork, you may find that you enjoy the process and begin to get some benefits for your highly sensitive nervous system. And soothing our nervous systems is something every HSP needs.
Be sensitive, be free
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