Relaxation methods for sickle cell pain: Deep breathing

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Many people take short, shallow breaths when they feel stress or pain, which makes the heart work harder to get oxygen throughout the body and increases muscle tension. Learn how to practise deep breathing to reduce tension and pain.

Key points

  • You may take short, shallow breaths when you are in pain or when you are stressed. This causes the heart to work harder, which increases muscle tension. This increased muscle tension can make pain worse.
  • Deep breathing can help you feel better by reducing the amount of tension and pain that you feel. Deep breathing works best if you practise it every day. Try to practise for a few minutes at a time several times a day.
  • The better you get at deep breathing, the faster you will be able to relax when you are stressed or in pain.

Many people change the way they breathe when they are in pain. They start taking short, shallow breaths and may not even realize they are breathing differently.

Shallow breathing is also one of the first signs of stress. It makes the heart work harder to get oxygen throughout your body. This extra effort by the heart can increase muscle tension, which can make pain worse. You can stop this cycle by learning how to do deep breathing.

Deep breathing can make you feel good and make you more aware that you can make changes in your body. It can also reduce the amount of tension and pain that you feel.

How do I practise deep breathing?

Check out the animation below to learn how to breathe deeply. The best way to become good at deep breathing is to keep practising. The better you are at deep breathing, the faster you’ll be able to relax when you’re feeling stressed or having pain.


Deep breathing should be a calming experience. Try to let other thoughts leave your mind while you are practising and put your entire focus on your breathing.

Deep breathing will work best if you practise it every day. The more you use deep breathing, the better it will work to reduce pain. A good goal would be for you to practise deep breathing for a few minutes at a time several times a day.

How to do deep breathing

  1. Sit comfortably, placing one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen (belly).
  2. Breathe in through your nose as much as you can while you count to five, filling your belly with air. Feel your bottom hand move out. Your top hand on your chest should stay still. You should be able to see your belly moving in and out. (If you can’t see your belly moving in and out, then lie down, with knees bent, and place a book flat on your belly. See if you can make the book go up and down.)
  3. Hold your breath and count to five. Your belly should get round.
  4. Now breathe out through your mouth, through puckered lips, letting your belly down while you count to eight.
  5. As you breathe out slowly until your stomach is flat, feel all the muscle tension flow out of your body.
  6. Repeat slowly, 10 times. Remember to breathe from your belly slowly and calmly.
  7. Notice your body beginning to feel more relaxed with each breath out.


  • Focus your attention on some part of the breath: your nostrils, the back of the nose, your chest or your abdomen. This is called your focus point.
  • You may be distracted by things happening in your body (such as pain), your thoughts or sounds or other things in the room around you. This is completely normal.
  • Whenever your mind wanders, notice where it goes and observe these thoughts and feelings.
  • Gently bring your attention back to your breath and your focus point. You may need to bring your attention back a few times as you get used to this exercise. This is OK.
  • Once you get good at breathing through your belly, you can practise this exercise sitting (instead of lying down).
Last updated: November 22nd 2023