Stress Management

Just breathe!

A cry from a newborn is a signal the baby has taken a breath and is alive. From birth until death humans breathe automatically as a natural process of life.

However, even though we are all using our lungs, there are different types of breathing occurring. Someone very stressed, on the verge of a panic attack, uses shallow, short breaths. In contrast, another person lying on the beach in the warm sun likely takes slow, deep, peaceful breaths.

It is true that it is easier to breathe deeply on the beach than in a stressful situation, but it is also true that you can change your anxiety levels by controlling your breathing. If you calm the body and the mind will follow.

A Buddhist meditation practice called tonglen teaches this concept. The word tong means sending out, and the word len means bringing in. When you breathe, you are bringing in oxygen and sending out carbon monoxide. The concept of taking in good and letting go of the bad is a metaphor with practical application.

Try finding a quiet place to practice your breathing. Quiet the meaningless chatter going on in your mind by focusing on an object, scent or scenery.

The practice has three phases.

First is a mindful quietude: 

For a few moments, sit quietly and tune in to your innate serenity.

The Second Phase is practicing taking in and sending out.

With each in-breath we imagine ourselves breathing in dark qualities such as pain, constriction, and heat. Then with the out-breath we send out light, openness, coolness. We consciously feel these qualities moving in and out of our entire bodies. Do this for several minutes.

As you breathe in and out in this way, you are acting like a filter, taking in what is painful, transforming it within yourself, and sending out openness and light.

In the Third Phase, keep breathing, but move your attention to any emotional pain you may be feeling in the moment.

Feel and accept the pain as you breathe in. As your release your breath, feel peace, openness, and coolness—all qualities brought by acceptance of the pain.

One of the challenges of being human is learning to accept pain, disappointment and loss. As we begin to accept pain, we learn from it and eventually heal. It feels like a contradiction to allow something into our lives that seems dangerous and undesirable in order for us to be transformed and experience peace, but it is true.

David Richo suggests to think of it this way:

  • We breathe in the experience of grief and loss that come with change and endings others are feeling, and we breathe out release from and resolution of them.
  • We breathe in others’ disappointment because of failed plans and breathe out trust that things will work out for spiritual progress.
  • We breathe in the unfairness and injustice others are facing, and we breathe out courage to stand up to injustice and act justly toward others while remaining non-retaliatory.
  • We breathe in physical and psychological suffering and breathe out healing and serenity. We breathe in the hurt all humans feel when others are disloyal or unloving, and we breathe out love and loyalty. 

One of my favorite quotes about acceptance of pain comes from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: “You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden and somebody brings you gorgeous food on a silver platter. But you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand but take the pain as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.” (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Caroline Myss, On Life after Death [Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2008], p. 22

If we breathe in pain, sadness, and loss with acceptance and reverence, we can breathe out growth and insight. We will receive our gift. The following song by Jimmy Buffet teaches the concept of breathe in, breathe out, move on.

Camille Curtis Foster LCSW

Contact Me: 801.472.7134/ 


Here is a good guide for beginning meditation: 

Great TED talk on the mind body connection:

An additional posts that may be helpful:

Sources: Richo, David (2005), The Five Things We Cannot Change: and the Happiness We Find by Embracing

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Caroline Myss, On Life after Death (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2008).


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