Diaphragmatic Breathing

Any journey that you undertake begins with a first step. The key to any practice of active relaxation is to relearn proper breathing patterns. Breathing slowly, deeply, and regularly is the easiest and most accessible relaxation technique (Loehr & Migdow, 1986). Most of the time you are no doubt oblivious to your breathing patterns. Let's first begin by discovering where you are now. Sit with your back supported, your feet flat on the floor, and your eyes closed. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your diaphragm, the muscle right above your stomach, as you focus on your breathing. Notice the pattern and rhythm of your breath as you breathe in and out. Then take a few deep breaths, noticing as you breathe in and out which hand moves more. Does the hand on your chest move up and down, with the shoulders rising and falling, as you breathe? Or does the hand on your abdomen do most of the movement? Take a few moments to do that now.

So what happened? Which hand moved more as you breathed deeply?

We notice in our classes and workshops that for the majority of students and participants, the hand on the chest evidences more movement. If you have ever seen a baby breathing while it is at rest or asleep, you may have noticed that the stomach moves up and down, while the baby's chest remains relatively still and quiet. This is called diaphragmatic breathing, and it is a natural antidote to stress. Diaphragmatic breathing involves deep, slow, rhythmic breaths.

Pay attention to what happens to your breathing the next time you feel stressed. You may notice that your breathing becomes quicker and more shallow and irregular. Some people even hold their breath or begin to hyperventilate under significant stress. For many adults, after years of frequently activating the fight-or-flight response, the fast, shallow breathing characteristic of this physiological reaction becomes a habit. This breathing is ineffectual, disrupting the proper balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your bloodstream and thereby creating a continual, if not full-blown, overactivation response. An optimal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide needs to be maintained in your bloodstream for you to remain calm. Rapid, shallow breathing causes overoxygenation of the bloodstream. The side effects of too much oxygen include muscle tension, dizziness, and feelings of anxiety. That is why hyperventilation is so counterproductive. The more quickly you breathe, the worse you feel.

Practicing Diaphragmatic Breathing

Retraining yourself is, in most cases, a rather simple procedure that requires only about five minutes a day of conscious focusing on your breathing. You can do this by practicing the following technique, once a day, for three weeks. (Three weeks is generally required to bring tone to the diaphragm muscle.) We have discovered that a few minutes prior to going to sleep is a good time to practice for many people. Others prefer to take five minutes when they return home from work or school. It is important for you to discover which time is best for you.

Find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed and while reclining, put one hand on your diaphragm and one hand on your chest. Focus on allowing the hand on your diaphragm to rise as you breathe in, as if your stomach were a balloon filling with air. Then watch it go back down as you breathe out and the balloon deflates. Notice the rhythm of the rising and falling of your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. Focus on the particular feelings and sensations that you experience in your diaphragm as the breath comes all the way into your lungs and then completely empties from your lungs. Do this for about five minutes, gently focusing your attention on your breath.

If you find yourself having difficulty initially lifting your abdomen as you breathe, try imagining that you are putting on a tight pair of jeans, when they come out fresh from the dryer. You would let all the air out of your lungs first, as if you wanted to touch your spine with your bellybutton, then slowly inflate the balloon as you let the air come all the way into your lungs.

Yet another technique that has proven successful for many people is to use a heavy book placed on top of your stomach as you practice your breathing exercises. You could watch the rising and falling of the book as you breathe in and out. This method has the added advantage of providing a weight against which the diaphragm is rising and falling, thereby conditioning the muscle much more quickly. Most people find that with just a little attention and practice they can return to that slow, diaphragmatic breathing they knew as a child.

We cannot stress enough how important this first step is. Without shifting your breath to a calm, relaxed, diaphragmatic pattern, you will find it very difficult to start your journey on the path toward stress mastery. The type of breathing you employ is the key to unlocking the magic. We know it sounds simple, but it is nonetheless true.

Take as an example research done with people suffering from panic attacks, a disorder in which intense anxiety (often accompanied by hyperventilation) is experienced at various times, causing the individual to withdraw and increasingly restrict his or her activities in the hope of preventing the attacks. In the extreme, these individuals develop a condition known as agoraphobia, in which they become housebound as a way of coping with the fear of the attacks reoccurring. Developing appropriate diaphragmatic breathing patterns has been identified as essential in learning to overcome the panic.

Other research has shown that the speed of your breathing affects your perception of time. When you breathe faster, a typical by-product of shallow breathing, time seems to speed up. You are more likely to perceive a shortage of time, creating a sense of time pressure. This, in turn, increases your level of stress. As you slow down your breathing, time also seems to slow down, resulting in a much more calm and relaxed attitude.

Focusing on your breathing helps keep you in the present moment. Your worries, anxieties, and stress occur when you focus on either the past (that is, mistakes you have made or things you wish would have happened differently) or the future (that is, what is going to happen and how you will be able to survive). But the past has already happened; there is little you can do to alter that except change your attitude or perception about what happened. And the future is yet to come; you can only affect it by working in the present, the here and now. Breathing helps you exist in the now in a way that increases your effectiveness.

Most spiritual traditions recognize the importance of breath. It is often considered our direct link to God or a Higher Power. The word inspiration has a double meaning, being used both to describe breathing as well as being infused with spirit and motivation. Alterations in breathing can create dramatic effects on our consciousness. Holotropic breathing, an alteration in breathing in which controlled hyperventilation is employed, for example, has been shown to create dramatic shifts in consciousness in the practitioners, akin to, if somewhat less intense than, those experienced when using hallucinogens. So breathing is clearly a powerful tool that can create numerous changes in our body and in our experience of ourselves and our world.

Once you can breathe comfortably using your diaphragm as you think consciously about it, it becomes important to be able to generalize that response to your daily life. One easy way to do this is to set up a number of reminders in your everyday environment. For example, do you know those sticky colored dots that are often used in offices to color-code charts? You could take a few of these (three to five) and place them in different places around your home and work environment. We suggest that you resist the temptation to place these dots on the foreheads of people who are a source of stress to you. However, feel free to use your imagination. Each time you see a dot, stop for a second, take one or two breaths using your diaphragm, and then go on with your activity. This will allow you, with minimal effort, to remind yourself to breathe this way at different times during the day. In just a short time you will be pleasantly surprised, as you focus on your breathing, to discover that you are automatically breathing deep, diaphragmatic breaths.

Another way to ensure that you generalize the correct breathing response to a variety of situations is by using a higher-order classical conditioning principle. This principle states that when a new behavior is paired, and thus eventually associated, with a behavior that is frequently emitted, the new behavior becomes conditioned. Now to translate from psychologeeze, this means that you will learn how to breathe correctly faster and better if you do it at the same time that you are doing things that you do frequently, such as answering the phone, going to the bathroom, or stopping at red lights.

Another obvious way, and indeed the first building block, is to remember to breathe from your abdomen whenever you feel yourself becoming stressed. This will help interrupt the automatic cognitive and behavioral strategies you may be using now, which merely lead to an escalation of the stress response. Remembering to breathe correctly in these situations allows you a pause that opens up the possibility of thinking or behaving differently, thereby using the stress rather than being used by it.

We should caution you, however, that it is not wise to use only situations when you are feeling stressed as reminders to practice your breathing. You will clearly find it more difficult initially to successfully focus on appropriate breathing at these times. Until you have learned and feel comfortable with abdominal breathing, you need to practice in situations that are less demanding and in which the fight-or-flight response is not fully activated.

Breathing Variations

You need only do the most basic breathing awareness exercises to achieve a much more relaxed state of body and mind. As long as your breathing is becoming slower, quieter, and deeper, you are moving in the right direction. Quite frankly, the hardest part is remembering to remember to be aware of your breathing and then to practice. But the fact remains that wherever you are you still have to breathe, so you might as well practice doing it properly in a manner that will help you stay calm, yet alert. However, for those of you who would like to experiment with breathing further, you can play with these variations to give you increasing control over your breathing.

Variation 1

In this variation you are simply going to add the dimension of holding your breath for several seconds in between the inhalation and exhalation. In other words, slowly inhale until your lungs are full. This will take approximately three to four seconds. Then hold your breath for the amount of time it would take you to exhale, another three to eight seconds. Finally, exhale slowly and completely by pulling your stomach in to really empty your lungs. From this point you are perfectly prepared to slowly inhale and begin the cycle again.

Various yoga teachers recommend that you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. They further suggest that it is also beneficial to do the exercises with the tip of your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth behind your upper teeth, so that you do not deplete your body of energy in the course of practicing your breathing. Since they have been practicing for several thousand years, this is probably a worthwhile consideration. We do know that it will create a back pressure during the exhalation process and prevent you from expelling too much carbon dioxide too quickly and thus prevent hyperventilation. The main thing is to proceed slowly with awareness. If you feel lightheaded, go slower or do fewer repetitions. We suggest you start with four or five cycles and build to ten or fifteen.

Variation 2

In this variation the idea is to fill your lungs quickly in three to four seconds. You then hold the breath for three seconds and then, as slowly and quietly as possible, exhale through your nose or through a small opening in your lips. Exhale completely as in variation 1 and begin again. Begin with several repetitions and build to ten or fifteen.

When we were first taught this exercise we were given wax earplugs so that we could pay exquisite attention to the sounds of the breath. The feedback of sound enables you to really understand what we mean by making your breathing quieter. Any earplugs will do, but we recommend staying away from lima beans and raisins as they are very difficult to remove!

Variation 3

This exercise is very similar to variation 2. However, when you reach the point of exhaling, instead of quietly hissing the breath out, keep your mouth closed and hum any note, until you can no longer sustain the note. Then inhale quickly, hold for several seconds, and hum again. Variations 1 and 2 are subtle enough that you can do them anywhere quite undetected. If you begin humming in a staff meeting, however, your colleagues may be a bit perplexed. That's why we believe this exercise might be better done privately. It can have a very calming effect, is a nice change of pace in your practice, and provides you with a kind of internal massage. Try it; you'll like it.

Variation 4

This final breathing exercise will relax you quickly and allow you to focus on whatever task is at hand. This is especially useful for helping you focus your powers of concentration. Place the tips of your index and middle fingers of either hand on the center of your forehead. In this position you can use your thumb to close and open one nostril of your nose, and your remaining two fingers to close and open the other nostril. The exercise proceeds as follows:

Close your left nostril and inhale slowly and deeply through your right nostril.

When you have inhaled completely, close your right nostril.

Then slowly and quietly exhale through your left nostril.

Keeping your right nostril closed, slowly inhale through your left nostril.

When you have inhaled completely, close your left nostril and slowly exhale through your right nostril. This constitutes one complete cycle.

Repeat this exercise five to ten times.
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