• Mindfulness exercises can help reduce stress

  • Clinical psychologist Gerrilyn Smith shares breathing exercises to help you self-soothe

  • Lots of our therapists use mindfulness as part of their practice - find your therapist here

Sometimes it’s the simple things that can be the most effective. Connecting to our senses promotes wellbeing and relaxation through our sight, sound, smell, and touch.

Learning how to manage the everyday and extraordinary stresses of life is a vital skill – one that everyone can develop simply and easily with minimal expense. While there is little that can be done to take away the risk factor, stress - including traumatic events - is increasingly part of everyone’s experiences. While you may not be able to avoid it, you can do something to mitigate the risks and reduce the chance of it developing its negative potential. This is why the self-soothing programme was developed – to combat everyday and extraordinary stress.

We learn about managing our feelings through our key relationships with our parents/carers, siblings, friends and partners. It is through others we learn about ourselves. Sometimes when we are really stressed, we need the help of someone else to remember the basics, which can even be something as simple as to take a long deep breath.

The modules in my manual, Self-Soothing: Coping With Everyday & Extraordinary Stress, are organised around the senses – sight, sound, touch and smell. The programme also includes modules on breathing and the body. Each session begins with some theory introducing the sense or topic that was being taught and includes some neuropsychology input. This is followed by a few exercises around which the sessions are structured. Each session ended with a 10–15 minute relaxation, sometimes sitting but often lying down.

Someone’s rate of breaths per minute is a good sign of how relaxed they are. For example, when you exercise or work hard you will breathe more quickly, as you will when you are frightened, as your body enters the ‘fight or flight response’ to danger. This increased rate of breathing is good because you are powering up your body with more oxygen, which helps your muscles work better. If you can move from breathing rapidly to breathing more slowly, this a good sign. If you are in a stressful situation all of the time, gradually your rate of breathing can increase and remain high or become shallow. Listen to your body and how it speaks to you through your breath. What is it trying to tell you?

Try this simple breathing exercise out on yourself first and then pass it on to someone who you think will benefit from it:

Exercise: Breaths per minute

Sit comfortably in a chair with your back straight (this will be easier if you sit on the edge of the chair). Use a timer or your watch to time one minute, and count how many breaths you take in that time. One count includes the inhale and the exhale. It may be easier if you count each time your chest or stomach rises.

How did you do? You can compare your results to the table below.

Breaths per minute

12–18 = Good

10–11 = Relaxed therapeutic breathing zone

4 = Meditative state

1 = Yogic breath

If you can get your breathing down to 10 or fewer breaths per minute and stay there for 10 minutes, then you can begin to improve your overall health. You are staying in the relaxation zone. Your heart rate is lowering; your blood pressure is lowering; you may feel calmer or even sleepy. Your body will begin to release certain chemicals that promote a sense of well-being.

If you practise this every day, you will become better and better at getting into the therapeutic breathing zone and staying there. You are strengthening the connections between the forebrain and the brainstem.

Further reading

How mindfulness complements psychotherapy

Read more about stress

Mindfulness makes for good health

The neuroscience of emotions