Breathing for Stress Reduction
Breathing with your belly
Diaphragmatic breathing is a type of a breathing exercise that helps strengthen your diaphragm, an important muscle that helps you breathe. This breathing exercise is also sometimes called belly breathing or abdominal breathing.
It has a number of benefits that affect your entire body. It’s the basis for almost all meditation or relaxation techniques, which can lower your stress levels, reduce your blood pressure, and regulate other important bodily processes.
Let’s learn more about how diaphragmatic breathing benefits you, how to get started, and what the research says about it.
Diaphragmatic breathing benefits
Diaphragmatic breathing has a ton of benefits. It’s at the center of the practice of meditation, which is known to help manage the symptoms of conditions as wide-ranging as irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety, and sleeplessness.
Here are more benefits this type of breathing can have:
- It helps you relax, lowering the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body.
- It lowers your heart rate.
- It helps lower your blood pressure.
- It helps you cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- It improves your core muscle stability.
- It improves your body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise.
- It lowers your chances of injuring or wearing out your muscles.
- It slows your rate of breathing so that it expends less energy.
- One of the biggest benefits of diaphragmatic breathing is reducing stress.
Being stressed keeps your immune system from working at full capacity. This can make you more susceptible to numerous conditions. And over time, long-term (chronic) stress, even from seemingly minor inconveniences like traffic, issues with loved ones, or other daily concerns can cause you to develop anxiety or depression. Some deep breathing exercises can help you reduce these effects of stress.
It’s often recommended for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD causes the diaphragm to be less effective, so doing breathing exercises that benefit the diaphragm specifically can help strengthen the diaphragm and improve your breathing. Here’s how it helps:
- With healthy lungs, your diaphragm does most of the work when you inhale to bring fresh air in and exhale to get carbon dioxide and other gases out of your lungs.
- With COPD and similar respiratory conditions, such as asthma, your lungs lose some of their elasticity, or stretchiness, so they don’t go back to their original state when you exhale.
- Losing lung elasticity can cause air to build up in the lungs, so there’s not as much space for the diaphragm to contract for you to breathe in oxygen.
- As a result, your body uses neck, back, and chest muscles to help you breathe. This means that you can’t take in as much oxygen. This can affect how much oxygen you have for exercise and other physical activities.
- Breathing exercises help you force out the air buildup in your lungs. This helps increase how much oxygen’s in your blood and strengthens the diaphragm.
Diaphragmatic breathing instructions
The most basic type of diaphragmatic breathing is done by inhaling through your nose and breathing out through your mouth.
Diaphragm breathing basics
Here’s the basic procedure for diaphragmatic breathing:
- Sit in a comfortable position or lie flat on the floor, your bed, or another comfortable, flat surface.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Put a hand on your chest and a hand on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose for about two seconds. You should experience the air moving through your nostrils into your abdomen, making your stomach expand. During this type of breathing, make sure your stomach is moving outward while your chest remains relatively still.
- Purse your lips (as if you’re about to drink through a straw), press gently on your stomach, and exhale slowly for about two seconds.
- Repeat these steps several times for best results.
The rib stretch is another helpful deep breathing exercise. Here’s how to do it:
- Stand up straight and arch your back.
- Breathe out until you just can’t anymore.
- Inhale slowly and gradually, taking in as much air as possible until you can’t breathe in anymore.
- Hold your breath for about 10 seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth. You can do this normally or with pursed lips.
Numbered breathing is a good exercise for gaining control over your breathing patterns. Here’s how you can do it:
- Stand up, staying still, and close your eyes.
- Inhale deeply until you can’t take in anymore air.
- Exhale until all air has been emptied from your lungs.
- Keep your eyes closed! Now, inhale again while picturing the number 1.
- Keep the air in your lungs for a few seconds, then let it all out.
- Inhale again while picturing the number 2.
- Hold your breath while counting silently to 3, then let it all out again.
- Repeat these steps until you’ve reached 8. Feel free to count higher if you feel comfortable.
What happens during diaphragmatic breathing?
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped respiratory muscle found near the bottom of your ribcage, right below your chest. When you inhale and exhale air, the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles around your lungs contract. The diaphragm does most of the work during the inhalation part. During inhalation, your diaphragm contracts so that your lungs can expand into the extra space and let in as much air as is necessary.
Muscles in between your ribs, known as intercostal muscles, raise your rib cage in order to help your diaphragm let enough air into your lungs.
Muscles near your collarbone and neck also help these muscles when something makes it harder for you to breathe properly; they all contribute to how quickly and how much your ribs can move and make space for your lungs.
Some of these muscles include:
- pectoralis minor
- serratus anterior
Autonomic nervous system and your breath
Also, breathing is part of your autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system is in charge of essential bodily processes that you don’t need to put any thought into, such as:
- digestive processes
- how quickly you breathe
- metabolic process that affect your weight
- overall body temperature
- blood pressure
The ANS has two main components: the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. Each division is responsible for different bodily functions.
The sympathetic usually gets these processes going, while the parasympathetic stops them from happening. And while the sympathetic controls your fight-or-flight response, the parasympathetic is in charge of everyday processes.
So even though most ANS functions are involuntary, you can control some of your ANS processes by doing deep breathing exercises.
Taking deep breaths can help you voluntarily regulate your ANS, which can have many benefits — especially by lowering your heart rate, regulating blood pressure, and helping you relax, all of which help decrease how much of the stress hormone cortisol is released into your body.
Risks and research
Diaphragmatic breathing isn’t always useful on its own. Research on ANS-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have found that deep breathing is often most effective as a treatment when combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or hypnotherapy.
Deep breathing exercises aren’t always helpful if you have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or another similar mental health condition.
GAD can last for up to several months or years, and the numerous worries or anxieties that accompany it may feel hard to control. Deep breathing exercises may cause more anxiety if they don’t appear to be working.
Techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are usually a better option for helping someone cope with anxiety or other matters of mental health.
Trained to help with your health
There are a lot of different breathing exercises out there, but they may not all be the right choice for you.
Talk to one or more of the following professionals for advice on breathing exercises:
- Your primary care physician. They likely know more about your overall health than anyone, so they may give good advice tailored to your needs.
- A respiratory specialist. If you have a respiratory condition like COPD, a specialist can give you specific treatments and advice on your breathing.
- A cardiac specialist. If you have a condition that affects your heart or bloodstream, a cardiac expert can guide you through the benefits of breathing for your heart.
- A mental health professional. If you’re thinking about breathing to help reduce stress, talk to a therapist or counselor who can help you gauge if breathing exercises will help.
- A physical therapist. Your muscles and posture can affect your breathing, and a physical therapist can help you learn how to best use your muscles and movement to assist you in breathing better.
- A licensed fitness professional. If you just want to use breathing for daily stressors, talk to a personal trainer or yoga teacher, or go to the gym and learn the best breathing exercises for your health and fitness.
Tips to get started and to keep going
Creating a routine can be a good way to get in the habit of diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Try the following to get into a good groove:
Do your exercises in the same place every day. Somewhere that’s peaceful and quiet.
Don’t worry if you’re not doing it right or enough. This may just cause additional stress.
Clear your mind of the things that are stressing you out. Focus instead on the sounds and rhythm of your breathing or the environment around you.
Do breathing exercises at least once or twice daily. Try to do them at the same time each day to reinforce the habit.
Do these exercises for about 10–20 minutes at a time.
Talk to your doctor or respiratory therapist if you’re interested in using this exercise to improve your breathing if you have COPD.
Diaphragmatic breathing may help relieve some of your symptoms in the case of COPD or other conditions related to your ANS, but it’s always best to get a medical professional’s opinion to see if it’s worth your time or if it will have any drawbacks.
Diaphragmatic breathing is most effective when you’re feeling rested. Try one or more techniques to see which one works best for you by giving you the most relief or feelings of relaxation.