SOBER Breathing

I had the fortune of attending Foundations Recovery Network’s 2017 Innovations In Recovery conference last week and came away with a very useful skill that incorporates some of the mindfulness and breathing techniques I have previously shared.  Whether an individual is struggling with substance abuse/addiction, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, or stress, SOBER breathing helps to promote an increase in nonjudgmental awareness and grounding so that an individual has the ability to decide how he or she wants to use the information about their experience to their advantage.  

Mindfulness can be understood as “paying attention on purpose and with intention to the present moment without any judgment” (John Kabat-Zinn, 1994).   So how do we do this?  It can be helpful to understand the three primary aspects of our awareness that make up our experiences: thoughts, emotions, and sensations, also called the triangle of awareness.  

Thoughts: This area of awareness involves the type of “chatter” or talking that goes on in our heads.  

Emotions: Emotions can be understood as mental states and natural instincts we experience in response to our moods and circumstances. 

Sensations:  Sensations are our subjective perceptions of our physiological and physical states.

SOBER breathing is an exercise and coping mechanism that allows us to identify each of these primary areas of awareness without trying to change or judge them.  SOBER breathing promotes the use of our breath to ground us so that we can send oxygen to our brain in order to make better decisions with our actions.  Here is how it works:

S: Stop.  The first step is recognizing that we are being triggered or having a negative experience and being able to pause it.  Visualizing a stop sign, saying ‘stop’, or physically stopping what you are doing are examples that achieve this.

O: Observe: Acknowledge in the present moment each area of the triangle of awareness (thoughts, emotions, and sensations).  What specific thoughts are you having; what emotions are coming up for you; and what physical sensations do you notice in your body).  The key here is solely to acknowledge, not to try and change or judge your experience.

B: Breathe. Focus on your breathing as a way to center and ground yourself.  For example, inhale through your abdomen (not chest) for 4 counts, exhale through your mouth for 4 counts, and repeat 4 times.  

E. Expand.  This is similar to step 2 in which you scan your body as well as revisit your triangle of awareness in order to acknowledge your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. It can be helpful to start from your head and move down your body.  Note if anything has changed for you or if you notice similarities from step 2.

R: Respond. Now that you have increased awareness of your initial negative experience, make a decision about how you want to act.  It can be as simple as trying to be mindful of your triggers or taking action in a behavior that has healthy benefits (exercise, social interaction, journaling, relaxation techniques, etc.).

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT