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- The swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, is open about his struggles with mental health.
- He is teaching his 2-year-old son, Boomer, some of the coping mechanisms that Phelps says helped save his life.
- Specifically, Phelps recommends a “lion’s breath” breathing technique, which he said Boomer has already mastered.
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Breathe in, and breathe out.
We do this about 20,000 times every day. Each breath can be thought of as another small opportunity to decompress.
The retired US swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, knows this fact well. Although breathing is a crucial part of swimming, Phelps said he discovered outside the pool how breathing techniques can help with mental health.
Phelps – who is now working with Colgate to encourage people to conserve water – said he has learned to take a deep breath when he’s upset or stressed as part of a tool kit of strategies he uses to calm down, relax, and get through hard times. The 23-time gold medalist is open about his struggles with mental health. Before the 2016 Olympics, he talked about his struggles with depression, which he said was so debilitating sometimes that he didn’t want to get out of bed or leave his room for days on end.
“I didn’t want to be alive anymore,” he told Business Insider.
Phelps is now trying to teach his kids to master the breathing skills that helped him – but at a much younger age.
His eldest son, Boomer, is now 2 years old and has quickly picked up one of Phelps’ go-to tricks: “We’re teaching him a lion breath,” Phelps said.
“Lion’s breath” is a technique often used in yoga classes – it involves breathing in deeply, holding the air for a second, then letting out a roar-like exhale. Sometimes, people stick out their tongues, stretch out their face, and unclench their jaws during that dramatic exhale.
“When he gets frustrated, [he’ll] try to take a deep breath, and almost take a step back, and rethink everything or use his words instead of throwing a temper tantrum and just letting his emotions come out,” Phelps said of Boomer. “Just being open, not letting everything compartmentalize and just build up, because it’s just going to be a gigantic bomb that’s going to go off at any given point.”
That breath-awareness strategy has a lot of science behind it.
Breath awareness can help people calm down and focus
The doctor and psychiatrist Dan Siegel, the executive director of the Mindsight Institute in California, has authored more than a dozen books on developing the mindful brain. He says breath work helps regulate our autonomic nervous system, a complex network of pathways that extends from our brains into our bodies. The system regulates blood pressure, sexual arousal, and metabolism, among other functions.
“Breath awareness is an important pathway to self-regulation,” Siegel said.
When we breathe in, we rev up the system’s accelerator, igniting the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Breathing out is more like hitting the brakes, activating the parasympathetic branch.
“Increasing the duration of the out-breath, either by holding it or by extending how long you’re breathing out, that’s increasing parasympathetic activation,” Siegel said. “And that can be really good to achieve a state of calm and relaxation.”
Boomer seems to have mastered this concept already.
“He tells me to take a lion breath sometimes,” Phelps said, adding that it happened just the other day, while he and Boomer were playing golf.
“It was pretty incredible – I was just a little upset, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Dad, take a breath,'” Phelps said. “I was like, you gotta be kidding me. This kid’s not even three years old.”
Siegel said that as Boomer becomes aware of and regulates his breathing in this way, he may be growing connections and encouraging pathways in his developing brain that could help him better control his emotions down the road.
“Studies have shown that the more a kid or an adolescent or an adult is aware of their interior life – the feelings, sensations of their body as well as their mind – the more they’re able to actually regulate those things,” he said.
Some small-scale studies have even suggested that mindfulness meditation centered on the breath may be as effective (or more effective) than drugs for addressing ADHD.
How to start your own breath practice
Siegel practices what he preaches: Every morning, he said, he does the breath work that Wim Hof, an extreme athlete from the Netherlands, promotes. The technique involves several rounds of around 30 active breaths in and passive breaths out. The idea is to take in more oxygen with every breath, breathing in deeper and deeper as you go.
If you’re interested in trying this type of breath practice, Siegel suggests doing so first thing in the morning, before going to work or school. On his website, he shares a guided 11-minute breath-awareness practice.
But before you attempt it, a word of caution: Breath awareness is not without risks. For some people, especially those who’ve lived through trauma, are dealing with chronic stress, or have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), breath work can provoke anxiety and trigger a flood of emotions.
“That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it,” Siegel said. “It just means that they should be very kind to themselves and patient.”
Some people may want to start a practice by simply observing their breath, without trying to lengthen it.
Phelps is committed to teaching his kids about mental health
For Phelps, the breathing technique, coupled with therapy sessions that have helped him learn how to communicate about his feelings, has literally been a lifesaver.
“That’s the reason why I’m here talking today, is being able to allow myself to be vulnerable,” Phelps said. “This is something I’m living with, and something I’ll live with for my whole entire life.”
Phelps said he’s grateful for the lessons he’s taken away from therapy.
“I make the joke about learning to communicate at the age of 30, but it’s true,” Phelps said. “It is something that I did learn, and I’m very grateful that I learned it at that age.”
He wants his two toddler boys to develop their communication and breathing skills much earlier. The same goes for the third Phelps baby, who is due this fall.
“The idea of being aware of your breath, or controlling it a little bit, that’s great,” Siegel said of Phelps’s efforts. “I think it sounds fantastic.”