". . . diaphragmatic breathing is considered by many to be the simplest and most effective form of controlled
respiration in the reduction of excessive stress."
S. Everly M.D.)
has been known for thousands of years that breathing has a powerful influence over our physiological and psychological well-being. Some people may find it difficult to understand the link between the way we breathe
and its effects on stress, as we have been breathing since the first moment we were born and take 20,000 breaths a day, so
we must have been breathing correctly as we are still alive. Yet research has
shown that the way we breath can have a powerful effect on how stressed we feel. When
we suffer stress one of the changes brought about by the fight/flight response is to speed up the amount of breaths we take
switching from slow, abdominal breathing to faster, shallower, stressful, chest breathing.
This is vital and healthy in the short term however if we are constantly triggering the fight/flight response we can
begin to habitually breathe with our upper chest even though the stress may be over.
This style of breathing sends signals to the brain that we are under stress when we may not be.
have two basic styles of breathing:
Relaxed Abdominal Breathing
Stressed Chest Breathing
1. Relaxed Abdominal
Relaxed abdominal breathing is a slow, calm style of breathing where we breathe mainly from our diaphragm/abdomen. If you observe a child that is relaxed and happy and you will see that
their abdomen moves out when they inhale and it deflates when they exhale. There
is very little movement in their chest. Studies have shown that practicing this
style of diaphragmatic breathing reduces muscle tension and anxiety levels within 60 seconds.
Abdominal, slow breathing stimulates the Parasympathetic (the relaxation) branch of the Autonomic Nervous System.
2. Stressed Chest (Thoracic)
In this style of breathing it is mainly the chest that moves when we inhale/exhale while there is very little movement
in the abdomen, and the breathing is shallow and fast. Again observe a child
who is distressed. When they become upset their breathing switches from slow,
abdominal, diaphragmatic breathing to mainly chest breathing that is fast and shallow.
Chest breathing stimulates the Sympathetic (the fight/flight) branch of the Autonomic Nervous System.
although breathing is controlled mainly by the Autonomic Nervous System, we can voluntarily influence our breathing and help
to switch off the fight/flight response by changing our breathing style from fast, shallow chest breathing to breathe diaphragmatically
at a slower rate. By doing this we send signals to the brain that the threat
is over and the parasympathetic part of the Autonomic Nervous system starts to reverse the biochemical and physiological changes
brought about by the fight/flight response. However, it must be remembered that
diaphragmatic breathing is a skill that takes time to learn, but it is effective because it is impossible to be relaxed and
stressed at the same time.
for Relaxation Breathing
Learning diaphragmatic breathing does not take long, but like any other skill it will take practice.
· Practice several
times a day for several minutes each time.
· One of the advantages
of diaphragmatic breathing is that you can practice it at any time in any place and nobody will be aware that you are doing
it. It can be used when:
a bus or train travelling to work
· During break times at work
· Before and during a visit to the dentist or doctor
bed just before getting up or going to sleep
adverts on the TV
· Before an interview or exams or giving a public talk
· During difficult, stressful meetings
· While waiting in a queue
· It is important not to take deep breaths. A lot of confusion has been
caused by using the term deep breathing. Your inhalation should only be slightly
deeper than your regular inhalation. If you take deep breaths this will achieve
the reverse of what you are trying to achieve.
· It is important to practise breathing correctly
every day, several times a day, until it becomes automatic and not wait until you are in a stressful situation before
Breathing Training Precautions
· If you find your breathing style is a factor
in your stress and the breathing strategies outlined in this session dont resolve this, or you have a chronic health problem
we recommend you consult a Chartered Physiotherapist who specialises in breathing retraining.
You can find such a physiotherapist at www.physiohypervent.org
· If you feel uncomfortable when practising diaphragmatic
breathing you may be breathing too fast and or too deeply. All you have to do
is let your breathing go back to its normal pattern. You cant change a habit
of many years, overnight.
are certain medical conditions like neurological or cardiovascular problems which may be compensated for by rapid breathing,
· High blood pressure
· Heart disease
· Recent surgery
· History of fainting
· Kidney disease
· Respiratory conditions/Emphysema
· Low blood pressure
If you have such a condition or any other chronic medical condition you should consult your GP before practicing these
diaphragmatic breathing retraining exercises.
· A minority of people
who suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder can be sensitive to breathing retraining and it can actually induce panic
attacks in sensitive individuals, so if you suffer panic attacks or panic disorder, discuss this with your doctor before practicing
How to Check We are Diaphragmatically Breathing
down on the bed or settee, place one hand (palm face down) on your chest and place the other hand (palm face down) on your
abdomen (just below your ribcage).
normally and notice which hand is moving most, ie the abdominal hand or the chest hand.
the hand on your abdomen is moving and the hand on your upper chest is still, you are using your diaphragm and breathing correctly.
your upper chest hand is moving more than the hand on your abdomen then you are breathing mainly with your chest and this
is a form of stressful breathing.
checking in this way on a regular basis that you are diaphragmatically breathing it will ensure that the majority of your
breathing is relaxed abdominal breathing and this will help to reduce stress. If
you are not diaphragmatically breathing then follow the instructions in Abdominal Breathing Exercise.
may find it initially difficult to breathe using your diaphragm. Don't give up,
keep practicing, you may have been breathing with your chest for some time and so it takes time for your body to relearn to
use your diaphragm again.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise (To be practiced at home)
you have checked if you are diaphragmatically or chest breathing you can now go onto the slow, abdominal, diaphragmatic breathing
exercise (1-2-3 breathing). Please ensure that you have read the precautions
and guidelines on breathing before commencing the exercise below. Once you have learned the slow, abdominal breathing exercise at home you wont need to use your hands on your abdomen
and you can then begin practicing using it in outside situations, like on the bus or train to work.
1. Sit or lie down.
2. Loosen any tight clothing;
remove shoes, tie, glasses/contact lenses.
3. Place the palms of
your hands flat on your abdomen just beneath your rib cage, middle fingertips touching, at a point 2 - 3 inches above
4. Close your eyes and
start to focus your thoughts on your breathing. Try not to think of anything
but your breathing. This helps distract stressful thoughts. Thoughts will intrude so don't fight them; when thoughts come into your mind try to bring your focus of
attention back to your breathing. It is important not to worry how well you are
doing but try to retain a passive attitude.
5. Begin to inhale through
your nose (not your mouth), feel the air flow through your nostrils. Breathe in for a slow count of 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . ., then exhale to a slow count of 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . This
will give you a breathing rate of 10 breaths per minute.
6. Try to imagine in
your minds eye that there is a balloon in your abdomen, as you inhale the balloon expands and as you exhale the balloon deflates.
Do not take deep breaths. When
you inhale your fingertips on your abdomen should only slightly part, this will help to reduce the risk of over breathing.
8. Start by practising
for a few minutes per day and then over time build up to 5 minutes, twice daily.
If you feel dizzy, stop the exercise and let your natural breathing rhythm take over; you are probably
breathing too deeply and/or too quickly.
· Do not use this breathing technique while driving, operating machinery or where you need to concentrate for safety
· Do not stand up straight away after relaxing, open your eyes, wait for a few minutes and then stand up.
· Do not drive immediately after practising your breathing exercises.