What is Diaphragmatic breathing? (Stress Benefits and Technique)

Diaphragmatic breathing, DB, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, can have extraordinary health benefits.  Specifically, belly breathing lowers blood pressure, increases our immune response as well as decreases anxiety.  Studies report that diaphragmatic breathing and cognitive behavioral therapy are highly effective in treating anxiety. Yoga practitioners have been doing it for centuries with excellent results. 

Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that is responsible for your breathing.  It sits below your lungs and works in an automatic rhythmic pattern.  During inhalation, this muscle contracts and flattens as the space in your chest enlarges. During exhalation, this muscle returns to its dome shape forcing air out of the lungs. 

During times of stress, breathing becomes shallow and stays in the chest. When we are panicked or stressed, we resort to chest breathing.  Sometimes we just get into the habit of breathing only into our chest. Intentionally bringing air into the belly, practicing diaphragmatic breathing allows for a full exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Pulling the air into the belly pulls the diaphragm downward, which increases your lung’s efficiency. This process means your lungs are processing oxygen and carbon dioxide optimally.  Just enough oxygen and purposeful relaxation is excellent for stress relief. 

Health Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

The process of diaphragmatic breathing involves the guiding of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.  Using your abdominals during practice will help them to strengthen. 

This process lowers blood pressure and lowers heart rate. Practicing belly breathing strengthens your diaphragm muscle resulting in the lungs working more efficiently. Also, breathing at this rhythmically slower pace reduces your body’s demand for oxygen.  Diaphragmatic breathing is an excellent tool to improve stress levels by eliciting a relaxed state. 

Babies are born innately knowing that diaphragmatic breathing is best.  If you have ever watched a baby sleep, you’ve noticed the rise and fall of its tiny bellies.  Everyone can learn to do more DB and benefit from the calm it brings. 

Diaphragmatic breathing is purposefully breathing air beyond the upper chest and respiration into the abdomen.  Often, the tendency, either with or without external stressors, is to practice shallow breathe, where air remains in the upper cavity of the chest.  For optimal stress management, learn this pattern again, and find your rhythm of calm.

How to Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing 

Before you begin, be sure to set aside time where you can be relaxed, alone, and comfortable.  You may sit in a chair fully supported with your spine straight and your feet flat on the floor.  If you prefer, you can lie down on a mat or bed with your head slightly cushioned for comfort. 

Become aware of your breathing. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.  Breathe in deeply through your mouth, keeping your chest still while bringing the inhale deep into your belly.  Pay attention to counting to three while extending your belly with the inhaled breath.  Find a regular rhythm of breathing while keeping the same depth of breath. 

Notice your hand on your belly rise as though your belly was a balloon filled with air.  Exhale, to the count of will be to the count of four. Your chest should have tiny movement, none if possible. 

Gently contract your belly as though your belly button could meet your spine and slowly release the air. Your breathing rate will slow down if you take a short pause after each inhales and exhale. Remember to keep a steady rhythm.

With each breath, see if you can intentionally exhale a little longer with each exhale. At first, practice this method by doing three breaths this way.  As you practice, preferably three to four times a day, increase the number of practice breaths until you can comfortably breathe this way for ten minutes.  

When your practice is ready to complete, take one more deep breath and open your eyes. 

Notice how you feel.  Are you more relaxed? What is different now after your practice than when you began?  Notice the difference in your state of calm. Remember, you can always use this practice at any time and any place. 

Should you begin to feel lightheaded, take a break and go back to your practice later.  Try not to take in more air than you need.  Let your body guide you. 

Technical Dive Into the Diaphragms Operation

The diaphragm’s work links the vagus nerve to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system, which means we don’t have to think to breathe. An exciting feature of our diaphragm and the breathing system is our ability to influence the rate and depth of our breath.  Researchers are exploring the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing and the impact of practices such as meditation and intentional breathing.  To date, we know that DB does positively influence our calm response. DB can affect the transmission of information from the vagal nerve and sympathetic nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing moves you out of a stressed state into a calm state, where the parasympathetic nervous system takes up its role.  

Stress may feel like a constant drip or a rushing hose over your head. Either way, our role in self-care is to have an arsenal of tools that address stress effectively.  Breathing correctly and optimally brings enormous benefits, including excellent stress relief. 

This article discusses diaphragmatic breathing, how the diagram works, and how to practice diaphragmatic breathing. 

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