Breathing Lessons for Coping with Grief

We breathe all the time, right? So, what’s the big deal?

Most of us are not breathing properly throughout our days for optimum health and well-being. Most of us have poor posture, we sit at our desks for long periods of time, slump in our seats, stare at screens, move very little… This is a problem for much of the population.

If grief is added on top of those bad habits, our situation becomes even more difficult. Grieving on its own makes us feel like we want to be slumped down, curled into a ball. It makes us want to protect our hearts. The chaotic yet static state sometimes even stops our breath entirely. If you are grieving, you may notice that your breathing is very shallow, or that you are holding your breath without even realizing it. You may suddenly find yourself gasping for a breath, as if you’ve been under water, reaching for the surface. This is not abnormal in grieving. Grief affects every part of us, including our breathing. Here is your chance to learn to breathe through grief.

Finding a quiet time at any point in your day to simply breathe can be a wonderfully healing tool. Anytime you notice that you are feeling anxious, particularly tired, or that you are holding your breath, take a moment—right then and there—to breathe.

Stoplights make good cues to practice your breathing as well. In addition to helping you notice your breath and serving as reminders to practice your breathing exercises, breathing at stoplights can help to counteract the stress we experience when we are confronted with the stress of the rest of the world—other drivers, traffic jams, errands that must be run—while we are in the midst of our grief. Inside your car, you can create a space of calm and peace simply with your breath. Practicing your breathing, and any other coping techniques, when you are calm, helps you be able to put them to use when you need them, such in the midst of anxiety or a panic attack (also not uncommon in grief).

Additionally, noticing your breath and increasing your use of breathing practices can also help you to become more mindful of your own thoughts and feelings, giving you a sense of control and stability in an otherwise incredibly chaotic time of life. The more you notice how you feel, what your thought patterns are, how your body is affected by your responses to the world around you, your grief experience, your thoughts and feelings, the less out of control you can begin to feel. A greater sense of calm and control can help you along your healing process.

Many people are told, “Take a deep breath.” But in my practice, I have found that when I ask people to show me how they take a deep breath, they often suck in their stomachs and fill up their chests. This is actually the opposite of deep breathing. Breathing this way restricts our lungs’ ability to take in oxygen and to release carbon dioxide. The result is an excess of CO2 in our bodies. Not inhaling enough oxygen and failing to exhale enough CO2 can create fatigue, mental fog, and decreased tissue function. For a grieving person, this can intensify many of the normal grief reactions that we go through as part of the grief experience. Breathing deeply and fully can be a helpful tool to decrease stress, increase clarity of thought and help to counteract fatigue. Not only that, but chest breathing stimulates our sympathetic nervous system—our fight or flight stress response. Think about it: When we are startled, what do we do? We open our mouths with a sharp intake of a chest breath. This alerts our brains that there is a danger. Breathing into our chests stimulates the very response we are trying to counteract. Learning to take deep belly breaths is essential to decreasing anxiety and getting more oxygen to the brain.

Read on to learn some simple but truly effective breathing exercises to decrease anxiety, clear your mind, and counteract some of the natural symptoms of grief.

Breathing Exercise: Just Breathe

This is an exercise in simply noticing your breath, helping you to become more aware and mindful of your own breath as it moves in and out of your body.

  • To begin, sit in any comfortable position, on the floor or on a chair, with your spine long and straight but not stiff.
  • Find a comfortable position for your hands, either folded gently in your lap or resting on your thighs or knees—palms up or down, whichever feels right to you.
  • You may close your eyes if that feels comfortable. If not, find a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you and allow your gaze to soften. As you sit, begin to notice the temperature of the air on your skin, notice any sounds you may hear within or outside the room. Begin to notice your body’s weight as it is supported by the chair or the floor. Notice the feel of the floor or the chair under your sitting bones, under your legs. Notice the feel of the floor beneath your feet. Expand your awareness to noticing the sensations of your entire body without feeling the need to change anything, simply notice.
  • Now, begin to notice and follow the movement of your breath as it moves in and out of your body, as you inhale and exhale. As you inhale, notice the temperature and the vibration of the air as it flows through your nasal passages, down your throat and trachea, on its way into your lungs. Notice the different sensations of your belly, your ribs, and your chest as they gently expand. As you exhale, notice the temperature of the air, the movement of the tiny hairs of your nose, the feeling of your lungs empty of air as it leaves your body. Simply notice these things and any other sensations that occur as you continue to breathe, easily and naturally, in and out.
  • Simply notice your breath as it moves in and out of your body without the need to change anything at all. Just Breathe.

Breathing Exercise: Simple Deep Breathing

For this breathing practice, sit in a comfortable position with your hands relaxed, either in your lap or resting on your thighs or knees. Then begin.

  • Relax your shoulders. Pull them up toward your ears, and then roll them back and down, creating space between your shoulders and your ears. Allow your shoulders to relax.
  • Breathe normally in and out for a few breaths. Notice how your belly rises and falls easily as you breathe naturally. Your chest should not expand a great deal as you breathe in and out. If you like, you can place a hand on your abdomen to help notice the movement as you breathe in and out.
  • When you are ready, breathe in—and on the next exhalation, breathe out slowly from your nose, counting to five. During this exhalation, tighten your abdominal muscles, and pull your diaphragm inward, toward your spine, squeezing all the excess air out of your body. When all the air is squeezed out, pause for two counts, and inhale slowly again, to the count of five, allowing your belly to expand as you breathe in. A very useful tip in learning to breathe deep into your belly is to imagine you are about to take a deep inhalation of your most favorite smell. When we smell something delicious, we almost always instinctively belly breathe.
  • If you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes and continue to repeat this easy deep belly breath for 5 to 10 times.
  • If you find that your mind wanders during this exercise, don’t worry. Simply bring your focus back to your breathing and begin your counts to 5 again.
  • You may find it helpful to think of a happy color (such as yellow or pink) or a calming color (like blue or green) as you breathe in and a dreary color (like grey or tan) as you breathe out. Or, you might choose to imagine breathing in a calming pleasant emotion such as peace or love as you inhale and breathing out stress or anxiety as you exhale.
  • As your awareness of your breath increases, it will become easier to practice your deep breathing without focusing so much of your attention on it.

Breathing Exercise: The Three-Part Breath

The three-part breath is a specific breathing technique used in many yoga practices and can be very useful in times of stress or whenever you need to relax. This type of breathing triggers your parasympathetic nervous system or the “relaxation response” (the opposite of the fight/flight stress response) and allows your body and mind to more easily release stress and tension. It is physiologically impossible for your body to be in a stress mode when you practice the deep three-part breath.

Obviously, you can’t breathe this way all the time, but when you do, it can help you think more clearly and decide on another coping skill or something else you can do to move away from the anxiety you may currently be feeling. Or you may decide to use the breath to sit with the pain of grief. This is okay too. Calmness in the midst of pain can help us know that we can survive the next moment, and then the next.

  • Again, find your comfortable sitting position, allowing your hands to be relaxed. The three-part breath may also be done lying down. Practicing this breath while lying in bed before sleep is a good choice if you have difficulty clearing your mind and falling to sleep.
  • To begin, inhale normally. Then, with your mouth closed, exhale slowly through your nose as you did with the simple deep breathing exercises, using your abdominal muscles to pull your diaphragm inward. Squeeze all the stale, excess air completely out of your lungs.
  • As you prepare for your next inhalation, imagine your upper body as a large pitcher. As you inhale, you are filling the pitcher from bottom to top.
  • First, fill the diaphragm and lower belly, allowing them to expand and completely fill with air. You can use the “smelling something delicious” tip here as you begin to fill your lower lungs with air, allowing your belly to expand.
  • Next, continue to allow your “pitcher” to fill as you notice the lower, and then the upper, parts of the ribcage expanding outward and up.
  • Next, fill the upper lungs, noticing the chest expanding, the collar bones and shoulders rising, as your pitcher is filled completely to the top.
  • Pause for 2 beats.
  • Exhale the opposite way, allowing the “pitcher” to empty from top to bottom.
  • Slowly exhale, allowing the shoulders and collar bones to slowly drop, the chest to deflate, the ribs to move inward. Again, pull your diaphragm in, using it to completely empty the air from the bottom of the lungs.
  • Repeat the process, refilling the pitcher slowly from bottom to top. Continue with the complete and full exhalations and inhalations, emptying and filling your pitcher.
  • The three parts are bottom, middle, top—expanding and contracting as you slowly and completely fill your body with fresh, cell-nourishing, life-giving oxygen and then slowly and completely empty it of carbon dioxide, toxins, and tension held in the body and mind.
  • As you increase your practice and the muscle movements become familiar, you may wish to add the counting of your breaths or your color visualizations. Ideally, the exhalations should be about twice as long as the inhalations. Initially, if you count to five as you inhale and exhale, gradually try to make your exhalations to the count of six, then seven, then eight, and so on until you feel more comfortable lengthening your exhalations.

If you feel dizzy or lightheaded while practicing the three-part breath, or any other breathing exercise, stop the practice immediately and allow your breathing to go back to normal. Sometimes if we are not used to a great deal of oxygen, the change can cause lightheadedness or dizziness. Know your own body and be mindful of the changes you notice.

I hope that these breathing lessons may help you through your grief journey and beyond. Just breathe.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Karla Helbert, MS, LPC, therapist in Richmond, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 10 comments
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  • Jade

    May 1st, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    We so take for granted this integral part of life don’t you think? It is rarely given the value that it so deserves! Yes, when I am having a particularly tough day, if I just find a few moments to relax, and do some mindful breathing, I always feel SO much better!

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    May 2nd, 2012 at 3:30 AM

    Great, comprehensive article. I teach breathing a lot in my practice. Always available, so good for the whole system…

  • Karla

    May 2nd, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    Hi Jade,
    Yes, I totally agree. Thanks for the positive comments. I also think that we don’t just take it for granted, there are so many people who literally do not know how to breathe. It can be a life-changing experience to breathe deeply & fully!

  • Nancy Franks

    May 2nd, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    such a simple little exercise like this can make any day, no matter how horrible, so much better

  • Catherine

    January 27th, 2014 at 7:14 AM

    These are great breathing exercises for both myself and my clients. Thank you for posting this. I also find that slowing down one’s breath, so that the exhale is twice as long as the inhale, is very relaxing and helps bring the mind to the here-and-now. I breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of ten. When I do this, I can always feel my heart beating, which also helps soothe my mind and body.

  • Karla

    January 27th, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    Catherine–I am so glad you find these helpful. As I tell my clients, the breath is the best thing that they can use to help themselves–and you have it with you all the time. Another one I do with some people is the 3-3-6-3 breath. Breathe in for 3 counts, hold for 3, breathe out for 6 counts, pause for 3 before inhaling for 3 again. The retention and pause also helps us to focus on our heart beat. :-)

  • Julia

    December 6th, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    Thank you so much for this.

    I participated in the breathing exercises while I was reading through (with my eyes open ;0) and now feel like I could float away on a cloud.

    Julia Kristina
    juliakristina.com/blog

  • Karla

    Karla

    December 7th, 2014 at 7:18 AM

    Julia~
    Thank you so much. I am so glad that this was helpful. I wish you a peaceful season–this time of year can be so hard. Sending love–
    Karla

  • linda

    December 18th, 2014 at 3:43 AM

    I will try this. Although, having witnessed my only child blow his brains out, then holding them in while he is gasping for air, while waiting for the paramedics, I find every task difficult and overwhelming!!!! Even trying to breathe like you suggest. Thank you for your work! Love and peace

  • Karla

    Karla

    December 18th, 2014 at 10:05 AM

    Linda- I am so, so sorry to hear of this awful tragedy. Having my own child die, I know the pain that comes with the death of a child. To have witnessed your child take his own life in such a violent and sudden way–I can only imagine the kind of hell you have been through and continue to go through. I wish there were something more I could do. I hope that somehow this can help. And please feel free to reach out to me via my website if you want to at karlahelbert.com I am also a member of the MISS Foundation and we support families after the death of a child. You might want to visit the MISS website at missfoundation.org

    My thoughts and heart are with you.
    Love,
    Karla

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