Reducing Stress With Diaphragmatic Breathing

A woman having a break taking deep breaths to reduce stress
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You may have heard that deep breathing exercises can relieve stress. Unlike some stress-relieving techniques, solid research shows that breathing techniques are not only very effective in reducing stress in our lives, but they are remarkably easy to learn and use at any time.

How to Breathe Properly

It may sound strange, but many people actually don't breathe properly. Natural breathing involves your diaphragm, a large muscle in your abdomen. When you breathe in, your belly should expand. When you breathe out, your belly should fall. This is known as diaphragmatic breathing. Over time, people forget how to breathe this way and instead use their chest and shoulders, causing short and shallow breaths, which can increase your stress and anxiety.

Instructions

Fortunately, it's never too late to relearn how to breathe and help protect yourself from stress. Practice this simple exercise to improve your diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable position either lying on your back or sitting. If you're sitting down, make sure that you keep your back straight, have both feet on the floor, and release the tension in your shoulders by letting them drop.
  2. Close your eyes. Alternatively, you can keep your eyes open (and eventually you likely will) but closing your eyes helps you to focus on the mechanics of breathing rather than outside stimuli.
  3. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
  4. Take a few breaths as you normally would. Does your belly rise and fall with every breath in (inhalation) and every breath out (exhalation)? If you can answer "yes," that's good. This is the natural way of breathing. If your belly stays still but your chest rises and falls with every breath, practice breathing by only allowing your belly to rise and fall when you breathe in and out.
  5. Continue to take deep breaths, concentrating on only moving your belly. As you take a breath in through your nose, imagine a balloon being blown up in your stomach. When you exhale, breathe out through your mouth as if you are blowing out through a straw.
  6. Continue as long as you would like.

Tips

Keep these tips in mind when you're practicing diaphragmatic/deep breathing:

  • It can take some time to relearn how to breathe. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. Take some time each day to practice this exercise. The nice thing is, you can do it anywhere.
  • Try to practice at a time when you're already relaxed. This will make it easier to take deeper breaths.
  • If possible, practice first thing in the morning and before you go to sleep. Practicing in the morning helps set the tone for the day and start the day more calm and relaxed while practicing at night helps bookend the day and prepare your mind and body for sleep.
  • If you're having trouble taking deep breaths, try breathing in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Also, slowly count to five in your head as you breathe in and out.
  • In time and with practice you will get an idea about how long you need to practice deep breathing exercises to reduce stress. Early on it may be helpful to set a particular time limit, for example, three minutes if you're pressed for time. Keep in mind that it's usually more effective to practice several shorter periods of deep breathing rather than single long episodes of deep breathing. Practicing more often also helps you incorporate deep breathing as a habit into your lifestyle.
  • If you feel like you can't focus or have outside distractions, say something like "inhale exhale." This will force you to focus on your breath and ground you in the moment so external stimuli doesn't get in your way.
  • Don't give up. Diaphragmatic/deep breathing takes practice and can feel very different if you are not used to breathing this way. Practice it for a week or so before deciding that this is not for you.
  • If this type of breathing makes you feel more anxious, it may not be a good tool for you. It does make some people more anxious, especially if it makes you feel out of control.

Other Stress Relief Techniques

Once you become comfortable with deep breathing, you can add other stress-relieving techniques in a way that works for you, including:

Benefits

There are many benefits of breathing exercises that have been documented in studies, including reversing the stress response once it occurs, helping you to be less reactive in stressful situations, and aiding in physical processes such as sleep, pain control, and even digestion. Diaphragmatic breathing is so helpful that healthcare providers often prescribe it to PTSD patients to help reduce stress and regulate emotions. In fact, a new app for wearables has been developed called BreatheWell that's designed to help veterans and military service members with PTSD and/or brain injuries remember to do, and guide them through, breathing exercises.

Adopting a Stress Management Lifestyle

Deep breathing is just one method of reducing, or at least coping with, the stress in your life, but there are many stress management techniques that may help you live with more joy and less worry every day. Using a combination of these techniques is ideal, as some methods are more conducive than others in particular situations. Even better, make a stress management lifestyle a family affair and try some stress-relieving practices with your children.

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