12 August 2008

Square Breathing

Being a chaplain requires all types of arcane knowledge. For me, having worn the crown of Queen of the Lint Trap Brain for many years, I'm often jazzed when some little thing I learned years ago becomes important in the work at hand. For instance: square breathing.

I heard square breathing described when I listened to Dr. Joy Browne on her call-in advice show. She's far more helpful and far less caustic and toxic than another Dr. I could name, but won't. At any rate, the caller was having problems with panic attacks and Dr. Joy talked about square breathing. I filed the information away, much like I have filed away in that same lint trap brain the particular Catholic feast day we might be celebrating.

Enter prison chaplaincy and the opportunity to work with all kinds of people of all sorts of faith practices and none to speak of. Many of them are first-timers and all they've really seen of prison, besides their weeks or months in county jail, is that they've seen on "Lock-Up" on MSNBC. Not the best of examples.

So a guy is in my office, his head filled with stories about prison rapes, weapons made of sharpened toothbrushes, and the memory of some tattooed guy who told him he was "going to learn a lot" at the prison. He's scared witless. He hasn't been sleeping. He may (or may not) have discovered a need for God--at this point, most of them are looking to hire a bodyguard and I'm more likely to recommend St. Michael the Archangel. But he wants something he can do or use.

So I teach him about square breathing.

I draw a square on a piece of paper. I label the upper-left corner with "Inhale 4." The next corner is labelled, "Hold 4." The next, "Exhale 4." And the last, "Do nothing for 4."

Then I make him demonstrate. "Inhale for a count of four." He looks at me as if I'm crazy, but he can count to four, and he does what I say.

"Hold it for four counts. One, two, three, four." Some have a hard time doing this.

"Exhale for four. Take your time. Not all at once. One, two, three, four." We have to practice this one a few times.

Finally, "Now do nothing for four." I tap out the count.

By this time, just trying to follow my directions has refocused the guy in front of me. Doesn't matter if he came in crying about the letter he got from his girlfriend or the bad dude who just moved into his cell. For the moment, he's concentrating on breathing and counting.

And that's all there is to it. Square breathing.

You can increase the count as you get better with the breathing, but most of my guys start with 4 and use that. They can spend 10 minutes--or even 5--doing that kind of breathing. The oxygen remembers the pathway to the brain. The heart rate slows down. The noise of prison fades away. Panic takes a back seat.

Learning not to panic in prison is a big deal, but it's not mentioned in orientation and none of the guys who have "been there, done that" think to pass it on to the new guys. I use it myself, when the days are too full of "do this NOW" moments. I stop where I am. I close my eyes. I inhale for a count of four, and hold it for four, and exhale for four, and do nothing for four.

I don't know if Dr. Joy Brown is still teaching people about square breathing, but I've hung on to the lesson and thank her every time I teach someone else the simple technique.


afeatheradrift said...

Hi Shannon,just wanted to thank you for visiting my blog. I am awed by your work. Having been a criminal defense attorney for more than 20 years, I know what jails and prisons are really like. It is hard to keep up one's spirits. You have an important voice. I am sure your job takes a toll, I hope you continue to share your experiences. Your breathing technique is something I will remember. Thanks for what you do. Blessings,

Chaplain Grace Michelle said...

Shannon, I have never heard of square breathing. What a wonderful gift you have shared. Seems God does have a sense of humor and likes to lead me to what I need.
I am a Chaplain that has just finished by 4th unit of CPE. I have been told the local womans jail does not have a Chaplain. thinking of going over and talking to them. Any suggestions.?

Anonymous said...

For those not in prison, this also works walking, counting steps in place of seconds. An odd number of steps, like 3, might be better so the same foot doesn't always land on one. For singers and wind instrument players, this seems to increase wind and breath control in addition to relaxation.