The Power of Their Own Breath


Hendrée Jones, PhD, a psychologist at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a drug addiction expert who works to help women and children with substance abuse issues across the world. She is the executive director of UNC Horizons.


By Mary Lide Parker

The Vitória Hotel in downtown Campinas, Brazil looks like any other high-class, modern establishment. Sunlight dances across the wide, turquoise pool. The white marble floor shines so brightly it almost looks reflective. Fresh, floral scents waft across the lobby.

Hendrée Jones, a psychologist who has traveled here from the United States, is standing in this swanky lobby, eyeing a large glass bowl of potpourri. She takes a few steps closer to examine the contents: brown star shapes with a sharp licorice scent and soft, fuzzy pine cones that smell like Christmas.

These will do. Jones scoops a few handfuls into a plastic bag.

“Don’t worry, I put it back later,” she says with a chuckle.

Jones pockets the baggy of potpourri and walks outside to hail a cab. After 45 minutes of winding through traffic, the cab drops Jones in a favela outside Campinas. Like so many impoverished areas of Brazil, the houses here are lit (sometimes) by illegal electricity while children run through the streets, zigzagging between enormous piles of trash.

Jones walks into the local drug treatment facility. She is here to manage a group therapy session for 35 children ranging in age from seven to 17. They sit in rows, classroom style.

Hendrée Jones travels all over the world – from Brazil to Afghanistan to India – to provide treatment to mothers and children suffering from substance use disorders. Picture links to original article.

These are not your average underprivileged kids—they have been used and abused by local drug lords. Some of these children started using drugs at age six. Some of them were handed guns at age seven. They are tough to the core yet they exist in a constant state of fear. Many of them are orphans and live on the street.

“What do you give to someone who has nothing?” Jones asks. “No home, no family, no purpose in life?”


“The power of their own breath.”

Today she’ll be teaching this group mindfulness exercises.

“We focus on concentration,” Jones says. “So rather than sharpening your focus, which is what happens when you get anxious, the goal is to relax your focus.” The ability to utilize your breath to calm your nervous system is the first step to teaching mindfulness.

She slowly walks around the room and asks everyone, if they feel comfortable, to close their eyes. If they don’t feel comfortable closing their eyes, they can look down towards the floor with a soft gaze. Then she places a small object in their hands—this is where the borrowed potpourri comes in. The children wrap their fingers around the small shapes. Jones begins by asking simple questions: Is the object rough or smooth? Is it heavy or light? What does it smell like?

“They’re not answering outwardly,” Jones says. “We’re creating an inward dialogue designed to help them watch their own thoughts.” By asking them about all the different aspects of this object, Jones can focus their racing minds on something simple and peaceful.

For another exercise, Jones stands in front of the group, stretches her arms over her head, and starts rapidly tapping her own head.

“I put my hands on my head and make fast, quick motions to illustrate how we live in high vibrations of anxiety,” she explains. In the violent and unpredictable environments these children inhabit, stress and fear are constants. Racing thoughts, shallow breaths, and rapid heart rate are all signs of being prepared for a threat.

Jones slowly lowers her arms down to her sides to symbolize the act of mentally and physically slowing down.

“When we bring these kids into a treatment center, we work on physical safety as well as emotional safety,” she says. Without fearing for their physical safety, their heart rate lowers, and their breathing slows.

The breathing techniques focus on the repetition of inhales and exhales. The rhythmic sense of specific patterns helps slow everything down, which helps to calm the central nervous system.

The breathing techniques focus on the repetition of inhales and exhales. The rhythmic sense of specific patterns helps slow everything down, which helps to calm the central nervous system.

“Fully using your lungs gets more oxygen to your brain and helps you think more clearly,” Jones says. “They can allow their thoughts to move in a more detached way, which helps them make better decisions.”

The breathing exercises are tailored to what the children can tolerate. “They’re scared,” Jones says. “They’re used to surveying for threats, and they’re typically not able to pay attention to anything for long.” Knowing that their attention spans and patience are limited, she starts the session off with a couple of easy belly breathing exercises.

To demonstrate, Jones lies down on the floor and places a small object, like a stuffed animal, on her stomach. As she breathes, the stuffed animal moves up and down. The children watch, and then imitate the exercise.

Another exercise creates a rhythmic breathing pattern through counting—breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of seven, and then breathe out for a count of eight. “That’s not one we would start with,” Jones says. “It takes a little more concentration, and a lot of times kids don’t have the patience for that—so we build up to it.”

In all her years of working with people who have been using drugs—both children and adults—Jones says the inability to feel is a constant. “They have a hard time feeling happy, and they have a hard time feeling sorrow,” she says. “They have great fear for feeling any type of emotion because when you take drugs, you numb everything—you can’t selectively numb out the sad or bad emotions, you numb out everything—the happiness as well as the sadness.”

“You have to learn how to be uncomfortable, and sit with it. The more you can do that, the better off you are.” 

And that’s what the breathing exercises and slowing the pace of the mind is all about. Learning how to sit with emotions, even those that are painful, and learning how to separate from them. As we so often hear in mindfulness trainings, the ability to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting automatically is a crucial skill.

“You have to learn how to be uncomfortable, and sit with it,” Jones says. “The more you can do that, the better off you are.” 

Mary Lide Parker is a science writer, photographer and videographer at UNC Research. She covers a variety of stories, including scientific discovery, social justice, artistic expression, and human health. 

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