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Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes called Belly Breathing) is a technique for increasing  the oxygen the body needs during times of stress.  During times of stress, some individuals have shallow breathing which inflates the upper part of the lungs using the accessory muscles.  Shallow breathing disrupts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and can increase anxiety.  

Watch a healthy sleeping baby breathe or watch your dog or cat breathe.  They have it right - they are using diaphragmatic breathing.  Most healthy individuals are using diaphragmatic breathing while sleeping. Singers, athletes, and musicians playing wind instruments all use diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing is also helpful for relaxation, reducing the perception of pain, and inducing sleep at bedtime.   It is particularly helpful for individuals with chronic respiratory problems such as asthma and obstructive lung disease.  

In addition to increasing the oxygen your body is receiving, focusing attention on breathing helps to put other thoughts and worries aside for a brief period.

It requires no equipment and can be used  anywhere.   It can be used before, during, and after stressful events. It can also be taught to children. 

Like any relaxation / stress management technique, it must be practiced in non-stressful situations, so that it becomes well-learned and can be then used in stressful situations.  

  1. Begin by breathing at your current rate and depth, inhaling and exhaling through the nose or exhaling through pursed lips.
  2. Rest your hands lightly on your abdomen just below your rib cage.
  3. When you inhale, you should feel your stomach move outwards.  When you exhale you should feel your stomach sink inward.
  4. When you are first learning this technique, it may be useful to exaggerate the movements of your stomach.  If you are lying down, you can put a book or a shallow rectangular box on your stomach (tissue or cereal box) which can give you visual feedback that you are doing it correctly.  You can also place one hand on the upper chest to ensure that you are not using the muscles there.
  5. As you increase the oxygen your body is obtaining, your respiration and heart rate will naturally decrease.  Blood pressure and muscle tension will also decrease, leading to greater relaxation.

  Alice Q. Libet, PhD  10/01/2010