The first time someone told me to, “just breathe” I was 18 years old and sitting in my doctor’s office having my first panic attack.
Convinced that I was dying, and that trying to take a deep breath wasn’t real medical advice, I was deeply annoyed with my doctor, and requested some “real” intervention. Today I know better- there is strong empirical evidence that diaphragmatic breathing, or taking slow, deep, belly breaths not only calms us down, but can also have some other significant benefits for our health and well-being.
Here’s some background to help you understand why deep, slow belly breaths can actually improve your health. If you’re not interested in the rationale- feel free to skip to the “how to” at the bottom…
Understanding our Nervous System
Our autonomic nervous system (nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body) is divided into two parts: The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSN)
Sympathetic Nervous System
The SNS is responsible for preparing us to deal with something stressful and is involved in the fight, flight, or freeze response. Sympathetic nervous system activation leads us to take faster, shallower breaths as our bodies prepare. When this stress response comes online, it’s like hitting the gas so you can go faster.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The PNS works in opposition to the SNS, and brings us into a relaxed, calm state. If the SNS is like hitting the gas, deep breathing is like stomping on the brakes to bring the PNS online. Diaphragmatic breathing brings the PNS online through activation of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a large cranial nerve that runs from our brain down to our gut touching many organs along the way. You can read more about how this all works here.
The Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing
In addition to using diaphragmatic breathing to help calm ourselves in the moment, research has demonstrated that regular practice helps us modulate pain, reduces oxidative stress induced by intense exercise, and can help reduce blood pressure.
There is some evidence that this type of breathing can also have an impact on gene expression. In particular, research has show that controlled breathing can change the expression of genes related to energy metabolism, insulin secretion, and the way our immune system responds.
How to Breathe Diaphragmatically
There are a number of definitions and descriptions of the type of breathing that is helpful in these ways, but what they tend to have in common is that they are deep (involve an expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest), slow, and controlled.
The reason it is called ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ is because when the diaphragm, a thick muscle at the bottom of the thoracic cavity contracts, air is drawn into the lungs. The deeper we breathe, the more our diaphragm moves.
You can do this exercise sitting upright, or laying down. Because the diaphragm is a thick muscle that moves down towards our toes when we inhale, some people will find it easier to first do this exercise laying down.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen (just below your rib cage)
Take a slow breath in through your nose breathing into your abdomen (4 seconds)
Hold your breath (1-2 seconds)
Slowly exhale through your mouth(4 seconds)
Wait 1-3 seconds before taking the next breath
Your abdomen should be moving in and out while your chest should be mostly still
If you notice that it’s difficult to breathe from your abdomen rather than your chest, you might want to try out this video to help you learn to breathe differently.
Some of us carry our stress in our abdomen, and as a result the muscles in that area (including your diaphragm) can get tight. You might consider having a registered massage therapist or physiotherapist explore the tension in some of those muscles for you.
It’s often better to practice these types of skills when we’re not feeling too anxious to get comfortable with them before using them in moments where we need them to calm anxiety.
If you find that breathing in this way is uncomfortable at first that is totally normal!
Sometimes you might even find that you’re fatigued when doing these exercises and that it takes some practice to strengthen our diaphragms and loosen up other tissues that are not used to moving that way.
When first practicing try the exercises for 5-10 minutes a few times per day. You can then gradually increase how much time you spend when it becomes more comfortable.
Jen Vishloff is a Registered Clinical Counsellor at Peak Resilience interested in helping people cope with anxiety, trauma, relationship struggles and overall mental health.