Addiction recovery can be a long journey filled with ups and downs. Facing your addiction and getting into rehab was probably the hardest decision of your life, but it was also the best thing can could ever do for yourself. Sometimes it might be hard to remember that when your recovery doesn’t seem to be going so well.
On the tough days, the advice you will get from a lot of people is to breathe. It may seem too simple a solution for what feels like insurmountable problems, but, in fact, it is often one of the best things you can do to calm yourself down and regain a sense of clarity. Understanding the benefits of breathing to help you manage your recovery, and learning some breathing exercises can help you get through the tough day.
Benefits of Breathing Exercises
Breathing is central to life, as you know. What you might not know, however, is how much control you have over your life by simply changing your breathing patterns. Breathing is connected to a number of essential functions throughout your body, and the way in which you breathe can alter those functions. Your breath also affects your brain chemistry, which is how breathing controls moods and emotions.
Breathing exercises have a number of health benefits, including:
- Increased oxygen to your cells
- Muscle relaxation
- More feel-good chemicals in your brain
- Natural pain relief
- Lower blood pressure
One of the most important roles of deep breathing to help manage addiction recovery is relaxation. That muscle tension you feel when you are under stress can be reversed by delivering more oxygen to your muscles. Breathing deeply and slowly makes more oxygen available to your muscles. When the muscle constriction is released, you feel calmer.
Another important function of breathing is improving your mood, something that is very helpful in recovery. Deep breathing affects the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain. Those chemical messengers that carry every thought and emotion are tied to breathing. When you breathe deeply, the extra oxygen triggers an increase in positive brain chemistry — producing more of the feel-good chemicals. This makes you happier and reduces pain.
Inhaling oxygen also encourages your body to exhale toxins. The natural metabolic processes performed by the cells and organs in your body give off waste products. One of those waste products is carbon dioxide, and it is removed from your body when you exhale. Shallow breathing cannot keep up with the workload of expelling toxins, so there is more strain on other means your body has for expelling waste.
Breathing also operates the lymphatic system to remove other forms of waste in the cells. Deep breathing increases the speed at which lymph fluid is circulated throughout the body. A healthy lymph system aids in detoxification. Even once you are through the detox part of your recovery, there are lingering chemicals and dead cells that need to be removed for your body and brain to function optimally.
Your physical health during recovery can also be improved by regular deep breathing exercises. Part of your recovery is to increase your nutrition and exercise to rebuild your physical health. Deep breathing increases the efficiency of your digestive system by supplying more oxygen to your organs. An improved digestive system can absorb more nutrients from the food you eat and flush out fat and other waste products.
Your physical health and mental health are connected, of course, so feeling better physically will improve your mental outlook. Part of addiction recovery includes removing certain substances from your system and replacing them with natural chemicals that make your body and brain function better. Breathing exercises are easy to do and can have a big positive impact on your recovery.
Eight Breathing Exercises for Addiction Recovery
Although fairly simple, breathing exercises can have a big impact on managing your addiction recovery. Connecting to your breath can help you reconnect with your inner self, regain control over your life, and improve your physical health. Here are some breathing exercises you can try:
1. Stimulating Breath
On those days when you feel completely overwhelmed, even breathing seems like a huge effort. In fact, as a natural reaction to your mood, your breathing may become slow and shallow. Your body conserves the little energy you have by slowing down all functions, like when you are sleeping.
With some practice, you can learn to use your breath to stimulate your energy and wake yourself up. This exercise will get your breath flowing and improve your energy level. Here’s what you do:
- Close your mouth and keep your jaw relaxed.
- Take quick breaths in and out through your nose.
- Time yourself to see if you can get in three sets of breaths in a second.
- You should feel your diaphragm moving in and out while you breathe.
- Start with a 15 second set and work your way up to a whole minute.
This type of breathing should make you feel the same energy boost you get from a good workout. It moves more oxygen through your system faster and gets your organs and lymphatic system moving. With continued practice, you should be able to use this exercise to pump up your energy and increase your focus.
2. Breath Counting
This easy exercise combines breathing and meditation. If you have trouble managing your breath and slowing your thoughts to meditate, this is a good exercise to start with. It takes advantage of your natural ability to focus on one thing at a time and gently shows you when your mind wanders off onto other thoughts so you can bring it back.
You should begin in a comfortable sitting position in a quiet space. From there:
- Sit quietly for a couple minutes and notice your breath.
- As you recognize the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation, begin to count.
- On the exhale, count “one” quietly to yourself.
- Wait for another exhale, and then count “two.”
- Do this until your reach five, then start at one again.
- Let your breath come naturally — do not try to control it.
When doing this exercise, you will notice that the rhythm of your breath may not be steady. Your inhales and exhales may not be of equal duration, but that’s okay. Just notice the differences without trying to change them. This is a good way to begin to connect with yourself. Careful observation of your natural functioning will help you learn more about your own nature.
You will find that when your mind wanders from your breath and your five-count, your count will exceed five. Although this exercise is simple, it does require a certain amount of concentration. It forces your brain to focus on the count and listening to your own breath.
Do not get discouraged when you notice your count has exceeded five. Simply notice what number you are up to and begin at one again. In time, you will see that number come down as your concentration improves. Eventually, this exercise will help you block out other thoughts, and that is meditating.
3. 4-7-8 Breathing
Here is a breathing exercise you can do anywhere to reduce tension and relax. It is probably easiest to learn this exercise while sitting comfortably. After some practice, however, you can do it at your desk, while standing in line, or when you are on an airplane. Any time you feel your anxiety rising, this exercise can help.
For this exercise, you will put your tongue behind your upper front teeth and keep it there. Exhales will be done with your mouth open, and they will produce some sound. You will inhale quietly through your nose. Practice a couple breaths with your tongue in position, mouth open to exhale and closed to inhale.
Now you can apply the 4-7-8:
- Begin with a complete exhale.
- Breathe in through your nose and count to four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale and count to eight.
- Repeat the whole exercise four times.
At first, you may find it difficult to sustain your breath for such a long count. It is okay to count faster when you begin doing this exercise. What is important is that the ratio of 4-7-8 still be observed. With practice, you will be able to slow down your count.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise naturally calms your nervous system. You might not feel its effects at first, but as you repeat the exercise over several days, its power will increase. You should practice 4-7-8 breathing at least twice each day with four repetitions at each session. After about a month of practice, you can increase your sessions to eight breaths each.
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Many people in addiction recovery struggle with a lack of focus. Even with detox behind you, your brain is scrambling to adjust to the absence of substances while you are unraveling the emotional layers of your addiction. There are a lot of reasons you find it hard to focus. There are many thoughts racing through your head at all times, making it sometimes difficult to focus on even a simple task.
With alternate nostril breathing, you are practicing your focus while bringing both sides of your brain together. Recovery is about breaking down all of the disparate aspects of your life and then rebuilding a healthier lifestyle. Alternate nostril breathing can help with the rebuilding part.
This breathing exercise can help you cut through all of that brain fog and focus your attention. It can result in a highly alert feeling you will want to repeat often. To complete this exercise:
- Sit comfortably.
- Press your right thumb over your right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril.
- Use another finger on your right hand to close your left nostril.
- Release your right nostril and exhale through it.
- Repeat this pattern several times.
- Reverse the pattern so you are inhaling on the right and exhaling on the left.
It may take a little while to get the hang of this exercise, but once you do, you can perform it rather rapidly. The alternate breathing connects the right and left sides of your brain and brings some balance and calm. This is not a good exercise to use before bed, however, since the end result is a more alert, clear-headed feeling.
5. Morning Breathing
You may have trouble getting going in the morning, especially if you are experiencing insomnia. Night can be a stressful time for people recovering from addiction. Tiredness can trigger cravings, and insomnia offers no relief. The resulting muscle cramps and stiffness may make mornings an uncomfortable time.
You need a gentle waking that softens your muscles and stimulates your brain. Taking a few minutes each morning to do this breathing exercise will help with that sluggish feeling in the morning. This breathing exercise can get you started and help circulate oxygen to your brain and all of your muscles:
- Stand up straight with your knees slightly bent.
- Bend forward from the waist and let your hands hang down to the floor.
- Relax your neck and let your head dangle.
- Inhale as you roll up one vertebrae at a time back to your upright position.
- Exhale and slowly fold forward again.
- Repeat five times, bending forward on your exhale and inhaling as you roll back up.
Be sure to do these movements gently and slowly. Taking time to stretch your muscles while you re-oxygenate them in the morning can make your whole day a little better. With this exercise, you may even end up liking mornings.
6. Balanced Breathing
Balance is an important concept you explore in recovery. While it is the basis of all of nature, maintaining balance in your life can sometimes be a challenge. You have a lot to juggle between work, family and your social life. There are financial matters to consider, as well as managing your personal and professional growth.
Some days, balance seems natural, while at other times it may feel impossible to achieve. When things get out of balance is when you stress out, make poor decisions or fall back into old habits. Maintaining balance in your life can help you avoid relapse in your recovery.
Like with building blocks, balance begins with a strong foundation. When your body is in balance, it is easier to get the rest of your life balanced as well. Restoring balance in your body can start with balancing your breath. This balancing technique is easy and can have a calming effect:
- Sit comfortably and breathe naturally through your nose.
- Count to four as you inhale slowly.
- Exhale to an equal count of four.
- Repeat at least four times.
This is a beginner level breathing exercise. As you become more advanced in breath work, you can extend your breaths to a count of six, and then to eight. Remember to keep your count slow and steady. The goal is to inhale and exhale for exactly the same amount of time.
Balanced breathing is a good exercise to do to before you fall asleep. The counting keeps your mind focused and distracted from racing thoughts, while the deep breathing relaxes your muscles. Use this breathing exercise any time you need to calm your nerves and relax.
7. Abdominal Breathing
Shallow breathing is a natural response to fear or anxiety. As part of the fight-or-flight response, shallow breathing prepares the body for a quick response to danger by tensing the muscles and conserving resources that can be diverted to the periphery for protection.
One of the things you are trying to accomplish in recovery is to reduce the amount of time you spend tensed and preparing to fight. Instead, you seek an end to the chronic stress that in some way underlies your addiction.
By reducing stress, you can heal your body and overcome your cravings. Many drug abuse activities are a response to stress, and you are working hard to leave those behaviors behind. Reducing stress will help retrain your reflexes so you reach for a healthier solution.
Stress is the number one trigger of relapse in recovery. This abdominal breathing exercise can help reduce your stress:
- Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose and feel your breath move into your diaphragm.
- Use your hands to monitor your chest and abdominal movement.
- Concentrate on inflating your abdomen without raising your chest.
- Exhale through your nose.
- Repeat the long slow inhale followed by a long slow exhale ten times.
Practice this abdominal breathing technique for ten minutes every day, and you may see some noticeable changes in your heart rate and blood pressure. By making this one part of your regular routine, you could enjoy the lasting effects of lower blood pressure.
You can use this exercise when you are experiencing acute stress, and you’ll feel your heart rate slow almost immediately. Try it the next time you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
8. Roll Breathing
This is a more advanced form of the abdominal breathing exercise. It requires more breath control and practice, but it can deepen your relaxation and increase lung function at the same time. Improving your physical health will have a positive effect on your mood and help your recovery.
If you feel complacent in your recovery, it’s time to try something new. When you are bored with the other exercises and want a challenge, try this one:
- Put one hand on your chest and one on your belly.
- Breathe slowly and deeply into your diaphragm without moving your chest.
- Exhale through your nose until your abdomen returns to its starting position.
- Repeat this deep slow breathing seven more times.
- Inhale through your nose into your diaphragm.
- When your abdomen is full, inhale some more and allow your chest to expand.
- Exhale through your mouth until both your chest and abdomen are empty.
You may find it easier to do this exercise while lying on your back. This position allows you to really feel and see the movement of your abdomen and chest. The technique is to fill your abdomen first and then fill your chest, expanding your lungs to their full capacity. With practice, you should actually be able to increase your lung capacity, breathing longer and slower.
When you let all the air out of your abdomen and chest, you should feel a reduction in tension. This exercise takes longer to perform than some of the others, but its effects should also last longer. It, too, can be performed almost anywhere when you need some stress relief.
There is a lot to learn in addiction recovery, and breathing exercises can be part of that essential knowledge. These exercises are pretty simple and are worth a try. You may find that one works better for you than another, so you might want to try them all.
When you discover how you can change the way you feel by simply doing some breathing exercises, you will want to make them a part of your regular routine. Just like other parts of recovery, you can always return to these exercises and develop a deeper understanding of the connection between your breath, your body and your brain.
Recovery can be a difficult journey. Keeping a positive outlook can help you get through the most difficult times. You will see that as you progress through your recovery, there are many opportunities to learn more about yourself. This deeper understanding and connection with yourself is one of the fulfilling parts of a lasting recovery.
Connecting with your breath, learning to control it and seeing how it can affect the rest of you is a great way to deepen your understanding of yourself. Breathing exercises are just one more tool you can use to move forward in your recovery.
For more information on these breathing techniques as well as other methods to keep your recovery on track, contact us at 12 Keys.