We are all well aware of the dangers of cigarette smoking but it is also true that, in addition to the nicotine, the very ritual and respiratory mechanics of smoking provide a useful stress break for smokers. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the stress reducing benefits of smoking without having to smoke ?

Today I’m going to show you how to have a “psychological cigarette” by teaching a simple breathing exercise with which you can experience many of the benefits of smoking without the dangers.

Breathing when We’re Stressed 

One of my favorite lines when talking about stress management and anxiety reduction is: “Don’t forget to breathe”.  The reason I say this is because, when stressed, our normal breathing patterns change: they become shorter and shallower and faster.  When anxious, we also don’t fully exhale.  The problem with stress breathing is that it holds in a lot of muscular tension instead of letting it. Holding in tension physically correlates with the emotional tension one feels.  Stressed breathing literally adds to the tension we experience and makes us feel worse.

Smoking as Intentional Breathing

When smoking cigarettes is looked at from a  respiratory point of view, the first thing you notices is that to enjoy the cigarette, you have to breath- slowly and deeply.  Think for a moment the way one lights up: the slow intake, the pause and holding in of the smoke and finally the full and unrushed  blowing out. (If you have never smoked just think of some old movies, Now Voyager  for example.  Remember the scene where Bette Davis and Paul Henreid light up ? )

When smoking is looked at from a sociological point of view it is obvious that the ritual of taking out a cigarette not only  provides a social signal to others but also affords the individual  permission to take a break from whatever he or she is doing and relax.

The Psychological Cigarette

Modern research has shown that the breathing dynamics of smoking parallel what is known to physiologists and psychologists as the relaxation response. The relaxation response is the body’s way of naturally releasing tension through breathing.  The good news is that by copying the intentional breathing steps we can experience many of the same anxiety reducing benefits smokers get without actually smoking.

It is important to realize you don’t need either the nicotine or someone else’s permission to take a break. You can create the experience yourself.

Three  Steps to Stress-Reducing Breathing

1) Recognize you  are feeling stressed.  It is important to realize when one is becoming stressed. A good way to do this is to ask, “How am I breathing?” Is it shallow, rapid, from my chest? Do I exhale all the way ? If it is chances are you getting upset.

2) Give yourself permission to take a break.  Once you realize your stressed, it is important to realize that you don’t have to just continue to become more so. It is OK to take a break.  Unlike relaxation exercises which can take a half an hour to do, the psychological cigarette can be done in a few seconds and it provides instant relief.

3) Focus on your breathing:

— Intentionally take control of your breathing and slow it down.
— Breath diaphragmatically (from your diaphragm not your chest) and take a deep breath.
— Pause and hold your breath in briefly.
— Slowly and completely let your breath out.

Successfully managing stress is a complex and difficult problem for many.  However it is good to know that this simple breathing technique can provide instant relief when one is becoming stressed out.

The remarks were prepared by the Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC for Bridge Street 10 12 2011

* Please note that this is intended to be a brief exercise. If, while trying the exercise, you become “light headed”, stop.