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Mental health moment: Breathing through change

In this weekly series, Lois Didyk, MGH social worker shares her “mental health moments” to help keep us moving forward.

By Lois Didyk, MSW, RSW

Living with the chaos of COVID-19 feels big. We’re being asked to change and adapt to our new normal, yet no one’s given us a map for how to do that. No wonder change feels like a threat!

But change is also a really important opportunity—to learn new practices, to reprioritize what matters and to find connection in unexpected ways. While the disruptions that come from change may be big, dealing with change in positive ways can be done through small, manageable steps—or moments.  

As a mental health counsellor, I talk a lot about moments with my clients: how moments of panic will pass… how moments of psychosis do not define you… how moments of success can be built upon… how moments of pain lead to growth.

Moments remind us that things are always changing and fluid. We aren’t trapped in our discomfort. A moment is all it takes to go from stuck to moving forward. 

Calm through breathing

One of the first coping techniques I review in my practice is breathing. That’s because this is our most fundamental tool for regulating reactions to threat (in other words, anxiety). Our body has natural calming systems—also known as the parasympathetic nervous system—we just need to turn them back on when we are overwhelmed. The easiest way to do that is through breathing.

I like “4-5 breathing”. (Fancier names include measured, controlled, deep or rhythmic breathing, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it.) It’s about slowly and intentionally regulating our breath to kick start that precious relaxation response. You can do this anytime, anywhere—but especially when you need some calm. 

Do it right now

Let’s take a moment and do it together, right here, right now. No one will even know! 

Think of breathing with the belly (rather than the shallow chest breathing we do when anxious), and slowly breathe in to a count of four with your belly going out, then breathe out for a count of five with the belly pulling in.

Again, in for four, then out for five.

Last time, slowly in for four, out for five. 

You only need to do it three times to have an effect, and that extra breath at the end is what kick starts the calming systems. Of course, if you have a breathing technique that you already use and love, then use that. The point is to stop and take a moment every day to use this tool to let our body help us along. Breathing through change is a small thing, with a big impact. 


Lois Didyk,MSW, RSW, is a social worker with Michael Garron Hospital Mental Health Services. She has worked for the past 30 years with Community Outreach Services and more recently, with the Mental Health SCOPE Program.