When I was growing up, many decades ago, no one talked about mindfulness. However, when I would get really upset, my stepmom would start singing a song. I don’t recall all the words, but the remembered words went something like, “Smile a while and give your face a rest. Stand up straight and elevate your chest. Take a big breath in, face life with a grin. Open up your heart and slowly blow your breath out.” She would sing it softly and melodically over and over while I would shout and stomp around.
Somehow, after a few rounds or more than a few rounds of the song, I would absorb the calmness in her voice and body and feel myself beginning to calm down. I can smile about it now; at the time, I’m sure I didn’t smile and take deep breaths. The gratitude – that is something that took much longer. Sometimes her voice was mesmerizing enough that I forgot what I was so upset about as I felt my body absorb her calm and felt my deep breaths. Other times I’ll be honest I just needed to have my feelings, stomp around and be upset. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized she was teaching me mindfulness.
What is Hot Cocoa Breath?
Hot cocoa breath is another term for deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. This type of breathing is the breathing taught in meditation and relation techniques. This breath can lower your blood pressure, reduce stress levels, and help regulate many vital bodily functions. The breath has a short inspiratory (in) phase and a more extended expiratory phase(out).
Why is Hot Cocoa Breath so Effective in Reducing Stress and Calming our Bodies Down?
If you just want to learn how to do the hot cocoa breath, skip over the why and jump straight to the how.
HERE IS WHY
When we feel upset, frustrated, anxious, angry, or out of control, our prefrontal cortex is off-line, and we are in “fight or flight” mode. We need to bring the prefrontal cortex (thinking, reasoning ability) back online. Hot cocoa breath – diaphragmatic breathing stimulates your vagus nerve, especially that long, slow exhale. The vagus nerve is a primary component of our parasympathetic nervous system. The “rest and restore” system of our body. This system is the opposite of the sympathetic system – the “fight or flight” system.
I think Emma Seppala, Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, sums up why deep breathing (Hot Cocoa breath) is so effective in an article in the Harvard Business Review.
Here is what Emma Seppala and her colleagues say about deep breathing exercises like hot cocoa breath.
“When we are in a highly stressed state, our prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain responsible for rational thinking — is impaired, so logic seldom helps to regain control. This can make it hard to think straight or be emotionally intelligent with your team.
Research shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, so changing how we breathe can change how we feel. For example, when you feel joy, your breathing will be regular, deep, and slow. If you feel anxious or angry, your breathing will be irregular, short, fast, and shallow. When you follow breathing patterns associated with different emotions, you’ll actually begin to feel those corresponding emotions.
Changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of our “fight or flight” responses). Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better. And your ability to think rationally returns.”
Alright, that was a super scientific way of saying: when you take a deep breath with your belly, it opens the switch to turn on our calm down circuits. These circuits send the message to the body that says, “I’m safe, I will be ok… I’ll get through this. Once our body gets the message and starts to regulate, our thinking abilities come back, and we can cope and make better decisions.
How do I do the Deep Breathing Technique? – For Parents.
- Sit up straight in a comfortable chair with your feet on the ground, your legs uncrossed.
- Close your eyes or soft focus on an area in front of you: a tabletop or the ground.
- Place one hand over the center of your chest and the other hand and arm across your belly. This feels like a gentle hug! This gentle hug is so much more than a hug. What is happening in our bodies during this hug? Maybe I was someone who didn’t get my needs met, who didn’t get the hugs I needed to help me regulate my emotions as a child. Those emotions are stored in our bodies. Every time I give myself “this hug,” I am rewiring those body memories of aloneness and longing for nurturing. I am reparenting myself and rewiring the circuits that remembered and stored those feelings. Circuits that wire together, fire together. The new circuits of calm and self-care will start to wire together. The old circuits of aloneness and longing are pruned away.
- Imagine you have a mug of your favorite hot beverage on a table in front of you. I imagine Chai Tea in my mug.
- Take a slow breath in through your nose. As you breathe in, slowly count to yourself one, two, three, four. This shouldn’t feel difficult or laborious. If it does, count to only two or three.
- As you breathe in, savor the scent of your favorite beverage. Mmm, it smells so good, and you can’t wait to take a sip.
- WAIT, it’s too hot to drink, and you have to cool it off.
- Then breathe out slowly, counting to eight. The length of the out-breath should be twice as long as the in-breath. If you stopped inhaling at three, then count to six as you exhale. The Long out-breath is the key to calming your body down and letting you access your thinking and coping skills.
- Repeat the cycle 10 to 12 times as you “smell your hot beverage in-breath” and “cool your hot beverage out-breath. Remember to give yourself that loving hug throughout the exercise.
- When your thoughts distract you, and they will. Acknowledge them with a “hello thoughts” label. “Hello, I don’t have time – thought,” “Hello, angry thought,” “Hi, worry thought,” then go back to your deep calming breaths.
- When your child is dysregulated during a temper tantrum, establish safety for your child and then take deep hot cocoa breaths. If you’ve practiced these breaths, the calm down circuits will fire together and infuse into the space your calm presence. Your child will sense the calm and begin to little by little absorb the feelings. This will eventually lead to co-regulation with your child and, in time, self-regulation of your child. Repeating a mantra to yourself during deep breaths is helpful. A mantra should be something simple – I’m ok, I’ll get through this. I’m a good parent; my child is a good child having a hard time. “I’ve got this.”
How do I Teach Hot Cocoa Breathing to my Child?
This mindfulness activity works best for kids ages three and up. It can be taught one on one or to a group of kids.
- Sit in a chair across from your child at a table.
- Pretend you each have a cup of hot cocoa in front of you. Cup, your hands around the pretend cup.
- Pour some pretend hot cocoa into the cups. Ask your child how many marshmallows they want on top of the hot cocoa.
- Add the imaginary marshmallows.
- Now it’s time to teach the Hot Cocoa Breathe.
- Tell your child. Mmm, this hot cocoa is sooo good. BUT it is very hot, and we have to cool it off by blowing on it. Can you help me cool it down?
- Take a deep breath through your nose and then very, very, slowly blow it out through your mouth. Be careful now because you don’t want to blow any of the marshmallows out of the cup. You want to blow very slowly onto the top of the cup to cool off the hot cocoa.
- Practice cooling off the cocoa for 10 – 12 breaths.
- Count to 2 during the in-breath and four during the out-breath. It helps your child remember to do a longer out-breath. After 10-12 breaths, tell your child the cocoa is cool enough to take a sip. Take an imaginary sip, smack your lips, and say yummmm.
- Ask your child how they feel? Explain that breathing like this when they are upset will help them calm down and feel better.
It is important to practice Hot Cocoa Breath when you are calm. During the next several weeks, at random times, stop what you are doing. Say to your kids, “hot cocoa breath,” then have everyone take 3 or 4 hot cocoa breaths. The first time you do this, they may look at you like you are crazy.
When you feel yourself losing your cool, stop and say to your kids, I need a hot cocoa breath; who wants to join me. Then enjoy your imaginary hot cocoa as you feel your body calm down and relax.
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