It’s hard to emphasize enough the importance of breathing in your quest to manage the stress response and take control of your life. You have a choice: deep abdominal breathing or shallow chest breathing. The diaphragm, which is under the lungs and just above the abdomen, is the most efficient breathing muscle and is connected to the relaxed nervous system, or the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Deep, slow abdominal breathing promotes mental concentration, decreases body tension and anxiety, and provides a greater supply of oxygen to the brain.
Chest breathing is shallow and rapid, and the numerous muscles in the chest are in a constant state of tension. This type of breathing is connected to the stress nervous system, or the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Its symptoms include increased heart rate and blood pressure, decreased mental acuity and concentration, and elevated anxiety levels. Some chest breathers are prone to hyperventilation, which is a very uncomfortable state.
There are three very important things I have learned about breathing over the years. First, most people don’t have a clue about their breathing patterns; second, breathing abdominally makes a huge difference in stress levels and an overall sense of personal control; and third, breathing abdominally is easy to learn and maintain. What good news! Here are some key steps for you to follow:
Find a comfortable, quiet place, preferably lying on a bed, recliner or on a blanket on the floor. Choose a spot where you won’t be disturbed for at least the next 10 minutes.
Close your eyes. Put your right hand over your chest and your left hand over your abdomen in the area of your belly button. Keep these hands in place for the duration of the exercise. This is how you will be able to tell where you are breathing.
Take several deep breaths, paying attention to which hand is moving. If your right hand is moving, you are chest breathing; if your left hand is moving, you are abdominally breathing. You may find that both hands are moving. The goal is to have only the left hand move when you inhale.
Now imagine that you have a red balloon in your abdomen underneath your belly button and that there is a tube extending from your chest to the opening of the balloon. Inhale through your nose, sending the air straight down the tube (no movement in the chest) and to the balloon, blowing it up like a child’s party balloon. Pause for three seconds, and then exhale, sending the air back up the tube and out your nose or mouth, whichever is more comfortable for you.
Wait three seconds before inhaling again. Inhale through the nose and direct the air to inflate the red balloon. Keep the balloon inflated for three seconds and then exhale slowly, waiting three seconds before the next breath. Be aware of your hand positions and where the breathing movement is occurring on the inhale. Repeat this pattern for 10 minutes. Do this twice a day.
After you have practiced this for several days and are confident that you are breathing abdominally during the exercise, check your breathing in a variety of circumstances and locations to see if you are chest breathing or belly breathing. For example, check yourself when you are reading, walking, cooking dinner or at work. If your breathing is shallow, imagine the red balloon and shift the breathing to your abdomen. Your goal is to generalize your abdominal breathing so it becomes a habit that can serve you most, if not all, of the time. Continue to check this frequently.
The image of the red balloon that you have practiced and used in general is a learned image that can help you when you are feeling stressed or anxious. Whether you are in the middle of the stress situation or are anticipating some stressful circumstance, just imagine the red balloon and do as much of the abdominal breathing exercise as you can wherever you are.
Continue practicing the 10-minute breathing exercise every day or at least several times a week. Practicing often reduces the stress response in general and keeps you focused on maintaining abdominal breathing.
More information on breathing can be found in The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (2008) by Davis, M., Eshelman, E., and McKay, M. and in my book on Positive Psychology, It’s Your Little Red Wagon…Six Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams!).