Mindful breathing is simple: Inhale. Exhale. Pay attention. Repeat. 

Can something so simple really make a difference to teens? A recent study of nearly 400 11th-graders says yes. The more students practiced mindful breathing techniques, the more they reported feeling capable of managing stress. Lead researcher Deborah Schussler says that’s because mindful breathing buys teens time to take charge of their emotions. “It gives you a pause so that automatic response, which is frequently not the best response, is hijacked.” Another big plus, Schussler says, is that mindful breathing is “a portable practice that students can easily integrate anytime, anywhere.” To introduce the benefits of mindful breathing to your teen, try these four research-backed practices:

Best for: emotional self-regulation, managing stress and anxiety

Picture a box with four equal sides. Inhale to a count of four as you mentally trace one of the sides of the box. Then hold your breath for a count of four, tracing another side. Then exhale to a count of four, and hold for a count of four. Repeat. Box breathing is used by soldiers, first responders and others to stay calm and in control in high-stress situations. It works by taming the sympathetic nervous system response, which ramps up stress hormones like cortisol as the body prepares to fight or flee. Box breathing can be used in any situation that triggers stress. It’s especially useful for teens with anxiety of any kind (like social, performance, or test anxiety) or teens who struggle to stay in control of intense emotions.

Best for: relaxation, self-care, teens who have trouble winding down

A body scan meditation is usually guided by a recording, like this practice on Insight Timer. It’s a step-by-step way to relax the body by breathing deeply and focusing on one part at a time: “Bring your attention to your feet. Feel the sensations of your feet resting against the floor, the texture of your socks. Maybe wiggle your toes. Now imagine that you can send your breath down into your feet, relaxing them completely as you exhale.” When teens are tense, they tend to hold their breath. Shallow breathing stimulates the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s responsible for processing stressful stimuli, and makes it even harder for teens to calm down. Listening to a body scan helps teens relax and can even help them fall asleep. Try doing this practice as a family to give everyone a little much-needed down-time.

Best for: focus and concentration, neurodiverse teens

The simple technique of counting breaths can help teens train their brains to boost focus and concentration. One study asked participants to track their breaths on each exhale, counting one through nine and then starting over after the ninth breath. Not surprisingly, experienced meditators found it easier to pay attention. That means the more teens practice, the more they enhance their ability to focus. All participants reported “more self-awareness, less mind wandering, better mood and less distraction.” The results suggest that counting breaths may be especially beneficial for teens with ADHD or on the autism spectrum, as well as any teen who needs help directing attention. To track concentration with your teen, try counting up to ten breaths at a time.

Best for: energy and alertness

Does your teen struggle to stay awake in boring classes or get tired when they’re studying? This breath practice can help them regulate the flow of oxygen in their blood, which energizes the body and makes the brain more alert. Diaphragmatic breathing or “belly breathing” engages the diaphragm by relaxing the muscles of the stomach and allowing deep, full breaths. It’s the way we should be breathing all the time, but factors like stress, hunching over phones or computers, and even sucking in our stomachs to look thinner cause us to breathe shallowly. Teach teens to inhale deeply to a count of two, then exhale to a count of two. Then inhale to a count of two, and exhale to a count of three. Continue breathing in to a count of two and extending the exhale each time until they’re exhaling to a count of five. In only about one minute, teens get an almost-instant energy uplift.

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