Learning to breathe more effectively and efficiently is a great way to reduce feelings of stress, manage anxiety and improve your overall health and wellness. If you have never taken a moment to examine your own breathing pattern, it can be hard to know whether or not you are actually breathing correctly. Ideally you use your diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle that sits at the base of your lungs, to breathe in deeply. Diaphragmatic, or abdominal breathing is the more effective and preferred style of breathing that calms the body and helps regulate the body’s stress response.
To check if you are breathing from your diaphragm, sit up straight and inhale deeply. Take note of how your body moves with your inhalation. Does your chest rise and puff out? Do your shoulders shrug up toward your ears? If so, you are demonstrating shallow, or chest, breathing. In diaphragmatic breathing, your belly should expand as you inhale.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, and increase the strength and length of your respiratory muscles, begin by either finding a comfortable seated position with your knees bent and your upper body relaxed, or lie down on your back with your head supported and your knees bent and supported by a pillow. Lying down is preferable if this is your first time practicing diaphragmatic breathing as it will allow you to get a better sense of your body movements as you breathe.
Place the palm of one hand on your belly, just below the bottom of your rib cage, and above the belly button. Place your other hand on the center of your upper chest.
Breathe in deeply through your nose. The hand on your belly should rise as your belly expands, and the hand on your chest should not move. If the hand on your chest moves, this is a signal that you are still not breathing fully with your diaphragm.
Purse your lips and exhale through your mouth. As you breathe out, tighten your abdominal muscles and think about pulling your belly button toward your spine. Again, the hand on your belly should fall as you exhale, but the hand on your chest should not move.
Continue this pattern of breathing for 5-10 minutes, and repeat this exercise a few times a day as your schedule allows.
At first diaphragmatic breathing may feel effortful and a bit tiring. That’s okay. The purpose here is to build up the strength of your diaphragm, a muscle, so that this style of breathing becomes easier, more natural feeling, and eventually automatic.
Learning how to practice diaphragmatic breathing will not only give you a great tool to utilize in moments of stress (deep breathing has an immediate calming effect!), but it will allow you to help calm other people as well. If you have ever been around someone who is having a panic attack, or hyperventilating, your instinct was likely to tell that person to keep breathing and calm down. Definitely good advice, but that is not an easy thing to do when panicking. Instead, encourage anyone who is very anxious, or struggling to breathe to place their hand on their belly and focus on breathing in through their nose in a way that will lift their hand as their belly rises. This will force the person to take deeper, slower breaths that will begin to calm their body and restore a normal breathing pattern. This is also a useful trick when dealing with a young child who is crying and breathing in a very shallow, forced fashion. Breathing through the belly and making their hand rise and fall can feel like a game to a kid. Not only will it naturally calm them, but it will likely distract them and turn their attention away from what made them upset in the first place. Total win.
If you find that you really struggle with diaphragmatic breathing, and that even after some regular practice you still catch yourself naturally and automatically breathing through your chest instead of your belly, take note of whether you have a tendency to breathe in through your mouth instead of your nose. While you can breathe diaphragmatically when inhaling through your mouth, and breathing in through your nose does not guarantee that you will use your diaphragm instead of your chest, in general inhaling through your nose tends to deepen and elongate your breath, which makes it more likely that you will incorporate use of your diaphragm into your breathing process. Basically, don’t be a mouth breather. Instead, breathe deeper. Breathe better.