Three Minute Breathing Space
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program
There are many ways to combat anxiety and depression, including prescribed drugs, physical activity, dietary changes, counseling, social support, contact with nature and several mind-body approaches, including massage, emotional journaling, guided imagery, skilled relaxation, yoga, meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is an effective therapeutic approach designed to help people who suffer from repeated bouts of depression, chronic unhappiness and anxiety. MBCT combines cognitive therapy with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a well-researched educational set of meditative practices and mental attitudes that nurture the cultivation of mindfulness.
Foundational practices in MBCT and MBSR include paying non-judgmental attention to your breathing, with a clear intention to bring the qualities of curiosity, openness and acceptance to whatever you are experiencing. While this can certainly include pleasant experiences, the real therapeutic payoff is working with challenging, difficult and unpleasant experiences.
One of the basic practices in MBSR and MBCT is the Three Minute Breathing Space. This practice is short and simple but can be extremely helpful in learning to ‘respond’ skillfully rather than ‘reacting’ in unskillful, habitual ways that often make things worse.
Three Minute Breathing Space
This practice is best learned by daily repetition, at least once daily, during moments of relative calm and peacefulness. As you gain familiarity with the practice, you can use it as needed in moments of distress. Let’s walk through the instructions together.
1) Becoming aware…Attending to what is…
Bring your attention into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture- whether lying down, reclining, sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes and bring simple awareness to your inner experience– scanning your body for physical sensations and observing your cognitions and emotions. Actually ask yourself “What is my experience right now … of physical sensations and sense perceptions in my body… of thoughts and images in my mind …. of feelings and emotions?”
Notice the habitual labeling of some experiences as pleasant and others as unpleasant. Welcome both….whatever is arising… allowing yourself to simply have your experience without judging your experience. Can you actually ‘turn toward’ both pleasant and unpleasant experiences rather than trying to push away or escape from the unpleasant and clinging to the pleasant?
2) Focus on the breath
Effortlessly and gently direct your attention to your breathing, feeling each in-breath and each out-breath. Allow the belly to be soft so the breath can deepen, fully expanding the lungs and sending relaxation impulses throughout the entire body and mind.
Allow your breath to anchor you in the present and help you train your mind to pay attention- taming the chaotic “monkey mind” that is in such constant motion. Allow the breath to help you slow down- shifting from the habitual “doing mode” to the “being mode” of mindful awareness- your antidote to worrying and hurrying.
As the breath goes out- really allow it to go out, out, out- dissolving into space- and notice the stillness of that pause at the end of the out-breath. Learn to rest here in that pause for a moment at the end of each breath.
3) Expanding…Paying attention to the body
Expand your awareness around your breathing, so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, sensations and sense perceptions throughout the body, sensing the tactile points of contact with the chair, the floor or the bed, noticing your posture, facial expression- and simply allowing all your experience to “just be” as it is, without liking, disliking or changing.
The Three Minute Breathing Space is a simple, portable tool to help you step out of the habitual reactivity of automatic pilot mode and reconnect with the present moment, responding wisely and skillfully to your life’s ups and downs. Anxiety and depression may be easier to bear. They may even diminish. But even if they persist- you can develop a new relationship with them- one that can reverse the downward spiral of worry and fear and help you experience an upward spiral of relaxation, patience, equanimity, hope- and even joy.
Here is a link to several audio recordings Dr Patterson has made for mindfulness classes, including awareness of breathing
A wealth of guided audio recordings from the founders of mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT)-
Finding peace in a frantic world
About the Author-
Dr. Patterson is founding co-chair of Lexington Medical Society’s Physician Wellness Commission, is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians, is certified in family medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mind body medicine, Integral Yoga, iRest Yoga Nidra, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and is a certified Physician Coach. He is on faculty with Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena), the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC) and Mindful Practice in Medicine (U of Rochester). He operates Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative mind-body health consultations and classes, specializing in mindfulness for stress-related chronic conditions and burnout prevention. He can be reached through his website. at www.mindbodystudio.org