Why the Way You Breathe Matters

Breathing abdominally is the key to self-regulation and the initiation of a relaxation response.  The breath can be seen as a barometer for how we are responding to a given situation. A shallow, rapid breath typically indicates that we are anxious or afraid.

Take a deep breath
Take a deep breath

The sympathetic nervous system is engaged when we are breathing shallowly and in the chest. We are engaged in a fight-or-flight response. Unless one is truly running from danger or engaging in battle, this rapid, chest breath depletes our energy and leaves us feeling drained and frazzled. I frequently observe this kind of breathing pattern in patients talking about painful memories as well as everyday life events. The problem with this is that the body is revved with no place to go.

It is important to know that one cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time. Two different systems are being triggered just by the way in which we breathe (sympathetic and parasympathetic). Therefore, if we shift our breathing from rapid and shallow to slow and deep we can move ourselves from an anxious state to a relaxed one. Learning how to breathe abdominally is perhaps the single most powerful tool for quieting anxiety, stress, and managing the spectrum of difficult emotions that we face throughout the life cycle. Abdominal breathing initiates the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces a relaxation response.

Interestingly a shallow breath can also be a sign of depression. The brain, muscles, and nervous system need an adequate oxygen supply in order for us to feel good. Learning to deepen the breath can help diminish depression. Exercise also facilitates this feeling of well-being, at least in part for the way it makes the breathing pattern deeper and more rhythmical.

Breathing seems like a basic and automatic event that does not require our attention. Yet, when we do become conscious of the way we breathe, we can significantly improve certain aspects of our lives. In essence we want to make the usually unconscious process of breathing more conscious and deliberate–at least initially. Long, slow, deep rhythmical breathing has been shown not only to reduce anxiety and depression, but to decrease heart rate, decrease blood pressure, decrease muscle tension, and ushers us into the present. Abdominal breathing also helps us to remain focused in the present moment and experience more fully whatever it is we are facing. When we remember to breathe deeply, we are usually better able to tolerate difficult feelings. Concentration and creative thought have also been shown to improve with the deepening of the breath.

The technique of abdominal breathing is rather straightforward. It does not take much to learn, but it can be a major challenge to internalize and integrate into one’s daily life. Abdominal breathing or the complete three-part breath as it is sometimes called involves aerating or oxygenating all parts of the lungs.

Three-Part Complete Breath

•   Practice abdominal breathing by sitting in a comfortable position. Loosen anything around the waist that could restrict the breath.

•   Breathe through the nostrils, which serve as a filter for the inhaled oxygen.

•   Breathe down toward the hips so that the belly expands to the front and sides.

•   Continue to inhale so that the ribs and chest expand.

•   Lastly, the upper chest begins to fill with the incoming air. Feel the full expansion of the belly and chest.

•   Release the air in the reverse order. Relax the chest and the belly. The exhalation usually takes longer than the inhalation. You may wish to make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation during a practice session.

When you watch a baby breathe it’s as if the whole body is expanding with each breath. It’s so natural for babies to breathe abdominally. Somewhere along the line, probably well before reaching double-digits, we unlearned what we knew instinctively as babies.

Roughly the idea is that when you breathe in, the stomach goes out, then the chest expands and when you breathe out, the chest and stomach goes in. If you do not wish to practice the three part complete breath, just keep in mind the expansion of the belly first and then the chest when you breathe in and the reverse when you breathe out. This will feel energizing and perhaps even exhilarating and the more you practice this, the more natural and automatic it will become.

Another good way to relearn abdominal breathing is to get into a position called ‘constructive rest.’ Lying down on a flat surface, the knees are elevated and the neck supported. This is an antigravity position. In this supine position we automatically breathe abdominally. It is possible to watch the rise and fall of the breath in this position. Practicing abdominal breathing can be done when sitting, standing, waiting, driving, meeting etc. There are countless opportunities during any given day to practice or refocus the attention to the breath, even while doing other tasks. The abdominal breathing focus might well improve the performance of most of our daily activities whether at home, at work or wherever. Practicing abdominal breathing gives us the added benefit of improving concentration and sense of calm.  It is impossible to overdo abdominal breathing and the more it is practiced, the greater sense of calm and control we experience. When practicing the breathing and experiencing its effects we can clearly see the connection between the mind and body.

What do you notice about the way you feel when you deliberately breathe abdominally?

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