Breathing properly is one of the simplest and best ways to drain your tension and relieve your stress. Simply by changing your breathing patterns, you can rapidly induce a state of greater relaxation. If you control the way you breathe, you have a powerful tool in reducing bodily tension. Just as important, you have a tool that helps prevent your body from becoming tense in the first place.
What happens inside when you breathe
Breathing provides your body with oxygen and removes waste products — primarily carbon dioxide — from your blood. Your lungs carry out this gas exchange. Lungs, however, don’t have their own muscles for breathing. Your diaphragm is the major muscle necessary for proper breathing. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that separates your chest cavity from your abdominal cavity and acts as a flexible floor for your lungs.
When you inhale, your diaphragm flattens downward, creating more space in the chest cavity and permitting the lungs to fill. You can see your stomach rising. When you exhale, your diaphragm returns to its dome shape. Diaphragmatic breathing, also called abdominal breathing, provides the most efficient way of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Your diaphragm works automatically, but you can override the process, especially when you’re under stress. And that’s where problems can arise. Too often you neglect to use your diaphragm when you breathe, and you interfere with the proper exchange of gases in your system, which can result in greater tension, more fatigue, and more stress.
Is your breathing bad?
“Bad breathing” can take a number of forms. You may be a chest and shoulder breather, bringing air into your lungs by expanding your chest cavity and raising your shoulders. This description certainly fits if you have more than a touch of vanity and opt for never sticking out your tummy when you breathe.
You also may be a breath holder, stopping your breathing entirely when you’re distracted or lost in thought. Both are inefficient, stress-producing forms of breathing. And when you’re under stress, your breathing patterns deteriorate even more. To make things worse, once your breathing goes awry, you feel even more stressed. Quite a nasty cycle.
Why change your breathing now?
You probably take your breathing for granted. And why not? You’ve been breathing for most of your life; you’d think by now you would have figured out how to do it right. No such luck. When you’re feeling stressed, your breathing becomes faster and shallower. When you breathe this way, your body reacts:
Less oxygen reaches your bloodstream.
Your blood vessels constrict.
Less oxygen reaches your brain.
Your heart rate and your blood pressure go up.
You feel light-headed, shaky, and tenser.
Our primitive ancestors knew how to breathe. They didn’t have to deal with the IRS, stacks of unpaid bills, or the Boss from Hell. These days only opera singers, stage actors, musicians who play wind instruments, and a couple of dozen moonlighting yoga instructors actually breathe effectively. The rest of us mess it up.
However, for a period of your life, you did get the whole breathing thing right. As a baby lying in your crib, you breathed serenely. Your little belly rose and fell in the most relaxed way. But then you grew up and blew it. Thankfully, all is not lost. You can re-teach yourself to breathe properly.
You probably think of breathing as a way of getting air into your lungs. However, in times past breathing was elevated to a more important status. Many religious groups and sects believed that a calming breath replenished the soul as well as soothed the body.
In fact, the word ruach in Hebrew and the word pneuma in Greek have double meanings, connoting both breath and spirit. If you remember your Bible, the book of Genesis says that when God created Adam, he “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”
Evaluate your breathing
You may be one of the few people who actually breathe properly. But before you skip this, read a little further. To find out whether the way you breathe is stress-reducing, take this simple test.
Lie on your back.
Put your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your chest, as shown in the figure.
Try to become aware of the way you breathe. Check to see whether your breathing is smooth, slow, and regular. If you’re breathing properly, the hand on your belly rises and falls rhythmically as you inhale and exhale. The hand on your chest should move very little, and if that hand does rise, it should follow the rise in your belly.
Credit: Illustration by Pam Tanzey
Don’t stress about breathing technique
A lot of people who want to adopt new patterns of breathing have a fervent desire to get it perfectly right. They frequently get so lost in body parts or lung mechanics that they wind up more stressed out than they were before they started. Don’t let this happen to you. And remember that there’s no one exactly right way to breathe all the time.
Give yourself lots of room to experiment with your breathing. And don’t overdo it. If you’ve been breathing inefficiently for all these years, changing gears may take some time. Above all, you’re not taking a test. Don’t grade yourself on how deeply you can breathe or how flat you can make your diaphragm. Remember, the goal is to reduce your stress, not add to it.