Take a Deep Breath! What’s the Deal with that?

Chances are someone has told you to “take a breath,” during a time of stress. To be honest, that phrase used to annoy me. I would think – I am breathing. I’m here, aren’t I? Do you have any other advice for me because breathing doesn’t help.

What I’ve come to learn is that there is breathing and then there is breathing. There are shallow breaths, where you take air into your lungs without expanding them. Then there are belly breaths that fill your lungs with air and expand your diaphragm through your abdominal wall. They have very different physiological effects. Especially in times of stress.

Short, rapid breathing, like what most of us do when we are experiencing anxiety, incites the nervous system and triggers a heightened stress response. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, calms your nervous system and signals your mind and body to relax. Moreover, when practiced regularly, belly breathing has been shown to reduce stress levels, increase your attention span and even reduce pain levels.

How Do You Do It?

Let’s try this together –

Put your hands on your rib cage and breath normally. Your rib cage likely does not expand much. Now, holding the same position, place your attention on your abdomen. Take a deep breath and notice how your abdomen expands. Continue breathing this way.

Can you feel your rib cage expand along with your abdomen or does it remain mostly still? In order to gain the calming benefits, we must expand both at the same time.

This may feel unnatural at first as if your lungs and your abdomen are expanding at different rates. That’s okay! It takes time to build this capacity. Your body is used to breathing a different way.

Keep going…

Practice belly breathing daily.

When you go to bed at night. When you are sitting in a carpool line or waiting out a commercial break. Not only will this reduce your overall stress levels, but it will also allow you to better engage this technique, in a moment of crisis, when you need it most! 

It might be helpful to understand the science behind it. Our bodies are miraculous. They function automatically. We don’t have to tell our nervous system to send signals to our brains. But – we might want to influence the kind of signals our nervous system sends.

Our sympathetic nervous system sends stress signals(fight or flight). The parasympathetic nervous system sends the signal a rest-relax response. 

It isn’t possible to “turn off” our sympathetic nervous system and we wouldn’t want to, as it serves to protect us from danger (fight or flight). Given that we encounter more stress and anxiety in our daily lives than we do in any real danger, it is beneficial to learn how to turn down the volume! 

Belly breathing can help. Activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling for the mind and body to relax.

– Stepping Stones Therapist