Many approaches to managing ourselves during conflict suggest we breathe.  Last month, I wrote about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation and how I have started to ask my coaching clients about their mindfulness practices.  This month, the focus is on the breath. One breathing and meditation teacher I came across, Max Strom, suggests it is easier to start with teaching people how to breathe before how to meditate.

So, this month I am exploring the idea that using breathing as a conflict resolution tool may be the most potent weapon yet.

Breathing can seem pretty basic. We all need to breathe all the time. Much like “communicating” – breathing seems a fundamental activity that we are doing absolutely fine, thank you very much!

The more I dig into the subject of breathing, however, the more I discover there is to know. Disciplines like Yoga, Pranayama, Tai Chi and Qi Gong can each help deepen our capacity to breath with intention. There is even research that lengthening your breathing can lengthen your life.

For some basics in the practice of breathing we can start with “four square” breathing. This kind of breathing practice has been taught to Navy Seal recruits, to help them control their primitive fear response in stressful, life-threatening situations. Four square breathing, or “box” breathing, is breathing in to the count of four, holding for four counts, breathing out for four and holding once more for four counts (repeat four times).  Try it now.  It will give you an automatic lift in your mood as you flood your body with extra oxygen. Feels good!

Some research has indicated breathing out longer than breathing in can induce even more of a calming effect. In this kind of breathing, the emphasis is on the exhalation.  Breathing out longer than breathing in engages the parasympathetic nervous system, making our heart rate and blood pressure slow down. The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, the one linked to our stress response. Try breathing out longer than you breathe in now.  Count in to a count of four, hold for four, breathe out to a count of six.  Hold for two.  Repeat.  Feels good too!

Dr. Belisa Vranich, a psychologist, originally specializing in helping those with anxiety, found teaching patients how to breathe impacted how they felt. That led to her becoming a “breathing educator.”  She now works with athletes as well as regular folks teaching them how to breathe consciously as a support to many situations in life.  She’s even written a whole book about breathing: Breathe: 14 Days to Oxygenating, Recharging, and Refueling Your Body & Brain

Dr. Vranich teaches one easy to remember way to breathe – “horizontal breathing.”  She says most people breathe “vertically” – breathing such that our chest and shoulders move upward, indicating we are only using the top, and only a fraction, of our lungs to take in air. She even has a term for the breathing many of us do as a result of epidemic computer usage: “no-halers.”  No-halers are those of us who hold our breath with shallow breathing chronically – a kind of breath- hold, breath-hold, breath-hold pattern.  Notice your breathing now – are you no-haling?  Or perhaps shoulder lifting?

Dr. Vranich’s “horizontal breathing” invites us to get the cue to breathing from lower down in our body – our hips, not our shoulders. She invites us to start this practice by directing attention to the sternum where our ribs attach. She says our ribs are meant to expand outwards, like handles on a pail, and contract inwards when we breathe back in (like lowering the handles of a pail).

Take a moment now to feel where your ribs meet your sternum (under your chest).  Hold your fingers around your ribs, close to your sternum and breathe in deeply.  Notice how your ribs do expand with this conscious breathing (that’s what I noticed when I did this). Doing this a few times can give you a visceral understanding of what Dr. Vranich is referring to when she says “horizontal breathing.”

Of course, we cannot pay attention to our breathing all the time – however – the idea of using our breathing to move through conflict is an intriguing one.  Is there a way for you to remember to cue yourself to breathe the next time you know you have to enter a difficult conversation?  Can you write a note to yourself:  “Breathe” – or perhaps bring in a mug or cup that is meant to remind you of box breathing or exhaling out longer breathing or horizontal breathing?

Of course, practicing deep breathing as part of one’s morning (or evening) meditation routine can be another way to integrate breathing awareness into daily life.

And, of course, you may not only decrease your stress levels, you may even lengthen your life!