Diaphragmatic breathing, more commonly known as ‘deep breathing’ or ‘belly breathing’, occurs when the inhale and exhale of breath is controlled by the contraction and relaxing of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the primary respiratory muscle and is the dome shaped muscle separating the thorax (chest) from the abdomen. The diaphragm plays a key role in effective breathing, and helps to give more power to empty your lungs, in turn creating more space for inspiration (taking air into the body). When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm is working effectively, evidenced by the expansion of our belly as we inhale through our nose, and the contraction of the belly as the diaphragm pushes the air back out. A good example of this technique at work is to observe the breathing patterns of a new born baby, you will notice how their chest rises and their belly expands gently as they inhale through the nose to fill the lungs, and the belly contracts as the air is pushed back out in exhalation. However, as we grow and begin to navigate the challenges of life, this instinctual breathing technique devolves and, more often than not, we find ourselves in a position where active effort must be undertaken to reinstate it.
Thoracic breathing, more commonly known as ‘shallow breathing’ or ‘chest breathing’, occurs when only minimal amount of air is drawn into the lungs through the mouth and rapidly expelled to various degrees of severity. In more serious cases, this rapid, shallow breathing is called tachypnea or where rapid but deep breathing occurs, this is called hyperventilation. Such breathing anomalies can occur due to stress and anxiety among other causes, and can have negative effects on both our physical and our mental wellbeing.
One such way in which this change in breathing impacts on our wellbeing is the influence which it has on our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The interconnection can lead to a negative cycle whereby stressors detected by the SNS releases hormones which trigger certain responses, such as increased blood pressure, heart rate and – you guessed it – rapid, shallow breathing as the automatic nervous system (ANS) prepares the body to ‘fight, flee or freeze’. In turn, our breathing patterns communicate with our SNS to indicate a potential threat, with shallow breathing interpreted as a possible sign of trouble, causing the SNS to relay the message back to the adrenal glands and so the cycle continues in a negative spiral. Traditionally, our body’s acute stress response would be triggered in the face of genuine threat, enabling the body to react and preserve itself from danger. Once the threat was removed, the response would slow and our systems would equilibrate. However, due to the culture in modern society, our bodies are subjected to perpetual stressors, and so our systems are not afforded the time to recuperate, and this is further damaging our ability to regulate effectively as a result. The long-term effects of shallow breathing can be detrimental, including fatigue, headaches, aggravation of respiratory problems, may result in panic attacks and has been linked to severe cardiovascular illness.
Where shallow breathing alerts the SNS to distress and sets off a chain reaction that perpetuates maladaptive breathing habits, deep breathing, on the other hand, works to communicate with the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which controls our relaxation response to calm signals to the ANS. The phenomenon whereby breathing acts as both a product of the messages received by our nervous system and an influence in those messages is part of what is commonly referred to as the Breath-Brain Feedback Loop.
Learning to control our breathing and taking active steps, such as implementing breathing exercises and breath ‘check-ins’ throughout the day to identify and correct your breathing technique, is imperative for our mental and physical health and offers huge benefits to our fitness, psychological resilience and our overall wellbeing. Diaphragmatic breathing can assist in lowering blood pressure, reducing heart rate and decreasing stress as well as centring our mental focus, improving sleep quality and fortifying our self-awareness and capacity for relaxation and mindful enjoyment of life, and boosting energy and mental clarity. Recent research also suggests that nasal breathing (breathing through your nose) is linked to cognitive functioning and can improve memory and that breathing through your nose in times of stress or panic may help to respond more quickly to the threat in your environment.
Try to incorporate some breathing exercises into your morning and night-time routines, to set yourself up both mentally and physically for the day ahead and to unburden yourself of the rigours of the day to prepare for quality rest, respectively. Yoga and meditation also focus on the regulation and control of breath and work towards establishing and re-learning effective breathing techniques. Over time, these efforts will become second nature, and will hopefully feed into a more balanced lifestyle in which the automation of our instincts become reinstated somewhat.
The following exercise known as the ‘Three-part breath’ when practised regularly may help to adapt thoracic breathing and encourage diaphragmatic breathing instead, and the associated benefits discussed above. This is a nice simple exercise and a good way to start if you are new to breathing exercises.
- Find a calm and quiet space.
- Sit in a comfortable chair with your back straight and supported with both feet on the floor or lie on the floor with a straight spine.
- Inhale deep through your nose and imagine the air filling your belly from the bottom up, allowing the belly to expand. Feel the breath fill slowly, right up through your rib cage, up through your chest until you are completely full.
- Slowly exhale in the opposite direction, allowing the air to escape first from your chest, then down through your rib cage and up from your belly. Contract your abdominal muscles to squeeze out every last drop of air to make as much space as possible for the next inhale.
- It may be helpful for the first few times to place one hand lightly on your belly and the other hand on your rib cage to encourage and connect with the direction of the inhalation and exhalation.
- Begin by practicing for one minute and then gradually build this up to five minutes.
And remember, when life throws challenges your way, Just Breathe.
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