Breathing is the basis of both life and all relaxation activities. One of the great ironies of breathing is how important it is yet how little attention we pay to it. Although breathing is our biological and spiritual connection to the universe we usually take it completely for granted. In a sense, every time you breathe you recycle the very elements of life. You breathe in life-giving oxygen and recycle this back into the universe by exhaling carbon dioxide. This cycling of breath in and breath out is your connection to the universe and the cycle of life you share with other living things such as the trees and animals around you. Your breathing is also a spiritual process as this cycle illustrates your interconnectedness to all living things on the planet and the universe beyond.
The simple practice of being more mindful of your breathing can help you relax. When you practice mindful breathing your thinking slows down. Mindful breathing helps you stop over-thinking, especially about past and future worries. The parts of your brain that control breathing are intimately related to the parts that control the stress response. Controlled, deep, even breathing facilitates relaxation. Rapid, shallow, irregular breathing disrupts relaxation. One of the main cues for understanding whether you are stressed is the pace and depth of your breathing. If it is rapid and shallow, chances are that you are stressed.
Becoming aware of your breathing pattern is the first step in learning how to slow your breathing down and reduce stress. Learning to control your breathing will provide immediate benefits in learning to control your stress response. By breathing correctly you can strengthen and train your lung functioning, increase your cardiovascular response, increase oxygenation of your blood, calm your nerves, and increase restfulness.
There are many different ways to breathe to help offset the effects of stress. In my Relaxation Audio Collection and my Relax Course (www.drrichblonna.com/store/audio/)
I use two breathing techniques to help you manage stress; Diaphragmatic Breathing and Diaphragmatic Breath Meditation.
Diaphragmatic Breathing to Reduce Stress
Diaphragmatic breathing and diaphragmatic breath meditation are very similar. As you’ll see, the major differences revolve around the amount of time and the level of mindfulness you devote to the two activities. Most of us use only a portion of our lungs when we breathe. We tend to breathe with the top third of the lungs. To receive the stress-reducing benefits of breathing, you must learn how to get your entire lungs involved. You need to learn how to fill your lungs completely from the bottom up. Learning how to breathe this way takes practice but you can master it if you spend time each day doing so. I’ve found that knowing a little about the lungs and how the diaphragm works will help you master these two activities.
A Short Overview of the Diaphragm and Breathing
The diaphragm is a large band of muscle tissue that is attached all around the lower portion of your rib cage. It separates the contents of your chest cavity (the lungs, heart, etc.) from the contents of your abdominal cavity (stomach, intestines, etc.). Contracting and relaxing the diaphragm affects the volume of your chest cavity and the air pressure in your lungs.
When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts and pulls downward, increasing the volume of your chest cavity and allowing air from outside your body to flow in. If you put your hands on your belly, just below your rib cage, when you breathe you can feel your belly push out as your diaphragm contracts and pulls downward. Some people call diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, because of this phenomenon. When you breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes, gets looser, and moves back to its normal position higher in your chest.
When you are stressed, the muscles in your abdomen tighten up and work against your diaphragm’s natural downward push. This keeps the diaphragm from fully contracting and allowing maximum air to enter your lungs. One of the goals of diaphragmatic breathing is to help you relax your belly so you can deepen your breathing and get more life-giving air into your lungs. Remember; a hallmark of relaxation is a slow, deep, even breathing pattern. Regular practice of diaphragmatic breathing and diaphragmatic breathing meditation will help facilitate this.
The following exercise, Diaphragmatic Breathing, is designed to teach you how to perform diaphragmatic breathing. You can use diaphragmatic breathing by itself to put your body into a relaxed state and short-circuit the stress response. It also sets the stage for breath meditation and all of the other classic relaxation techniques that I will cover in the coming weeks.
Instructions: To practice, simply follow the instructions below or listen to the recording on my Relaxation Audio Collection.
- Focus your attention on your current breathing pattern.
- Make a mental note of the depth, pace, and regularity of your breathing.
- Visualize a picture of your lungs and your diaphragm.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose.
- Rest your hands on your belly, just under your ribs.
- Feel your belly move out as your diaphragm pushes down against it.
- As you breathe in through your nose, visualize your lungs inflating completely starting from the bottom (the part closest to your diaphragm) and moving upward.
- Let your ribs expand and shoulders gently rise as your lungs inflate.
- When you have filled your lungs, slowly exhale through your nose.
- Feel your belly push back and your diaphragm rise back into place.
- As you feel the movements in your belly visualize your lungs emptying.
- Imagine all of the air leaving your lungs as they deflate (sometimes visualizing a balloon losing air or a toothpaste tube squeezing the paste out can be helpful in understanding the emptying process).
- Continue to breathe in and out this way for a couple of minutes, paying attention to the movement of your belly and diaphragm and the visual picture of your lungs filling from the bottom up and completely emptying.
A Few Hints About Practicing Diaphragmatic Breathing:
- Worry about the depth and pace of your breathing.
- Judge your performance.
- Compare yourself to people who have been meditating for years.
- Expect instant results, give it time.
- Pay attention to what is going on in your lungs and the rest of your body.
- Accept that you will lose your focus during your practice.
- Accept that your runaway mind will need to be re-directed back to your breathing.
- Give yourself time to adjust to this new practice.
I have been practicing diaphragmatic breathing and breath meditation for over 30 years and I still get distracted. Some days it seems that my mind is all over the place. Other days I easily and gracefully fall into a deep state of relaxation and my mind is calm. I’ve learned to accept this and co-exist with my discomfort related to my runaway mind.
Relax, it will take time and practice to feel fully comfortable doing diaphragmatic breathing. As you become more comfortable with the practice you will be able to switch into this type of breathing on demand whenever you feel stressed. This is a very valuable first line of defense against stress when you find yourself in potentially stressful situations.
In my next column I’ll discuss Breath, Meditation. In the meantime remember to stress less and live more.
Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more. www.drrichblonna.com.