Adapted from Stress
Management: Approaches for preventing and reducing stress.
Proper breathing goes by many names. You may have heard it
called diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. When
you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs,
and you will notice that your lower belly rises. The ability to breathe so
deeply and powerfully is not limited to a select few. This skill is inborn but
often lies dormant. Reawakening it allows you to tap one of your body’s
strongest self-healing mechanisms.
Why does breathing deeply seem unnatural to many of us? One
reason may be that our culture often rewards us for stifling strong emotions.
Girls and women are expected to rein in anger. Boys and men are exhorted not to
cry. What happens when you hold back tears, stifle anger during a charged
confrontation, tiptoe through a fearful situation, or try to keep pain at bay?
Unconsciously, you hold your breath or breathe irregularly.
Body image affects breathing, too. A “washboard” stomach
considered so attractive in our culture encourages men and women to constrict
their stomach muscles. This adds to tension and anxiety, and gradually makes
shallow “chest breathing” feel normal.
The act of breathing engages the diaphragm, a strong sheet
of muscle that divides the chest from the abdomen. As you breathe in, the
diaphragm drops downward, pulling your lungs with it and pressing against
abdominal organs to make room for your lungs to expand as they fill with air.
As you breathe out, the diaphragm presses back upward against your lungs,
helping to expel carbon dioxide (see figure).
Shallow breathing hobbles the diaphragm’s range of motion.
The lowest portion of the lungs — which is where many small blood vessels
instrumental in carrying oxygen to cells reside — never gets a full share of
oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious.
Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange —
that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide.
Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or
stabilize blood pressure.
Here’s how to take a deep, healing, diaphragmatic breath:
First steps. Find
a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Start by observing your breath.
First take a normal breath. Now try taking a slow, deep breath. The air coming
in through your nose should move downward into your lower belly. Let your
abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out through your mouth (or your nose, if that
feels more natural). Alternate normal and deep breaths several times. Pay
attention to how you feel when you inhale and exhale normally and when you
breathe deeply. Shallow breathing often feels tense and constricted, while deep
breathing produces relaxation.
Now practice diaphragmatic breathing for several minutes.
Put one hand on your abdomen, just below your belly button. Feel your hand rise
about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale.
Your chest will rise slightly, too, in concert with your abdomen. Remember to
relax your belly so that each inhalation expands it fully.
Breath focus in
practice. Once you’ve taken the steps above, you can move on to regular
practice of breath focus. As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, blend
your breathing with helpful imagery and a focus word or phrase that will help
you relax. Imagine that the air you breathe in washes peace and calm into your
body. As you breathe out, imagine that the air leaving your body carries
tension and anxiety away with it. As you inhale, try saying this phrase to
yourself: “Breathing in peace and calm.” And as you exhale, say: “Breathing out
tension and anxiety.” When you first start, 10 minutes of breath focus is a reasonable
goal. Gradually add time until your sessions are about 15 to 20 minutes long.