The diaphragm is a muscle attached to the bottom of your ribcage. When you pull down on this muscle, your belly expands and your lungs fill up with air. We can breathe without activating this muscle, but that is known as chest breathing, where only the top portion of the lungs inflate. When we are born we all breathe from our bellies. However, the older we get, the more stressed out we get, the more we start breathing from our chests. There has been a lot of research on the effects of diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation, and interestingly on a person’s level of self-control. There is a nerve connected to the diaphragm, the vagus nerve, that runs straight up into the brain and when you activate the diaphragm, you activate your relaxation response in your brain. Some research has indicated that stimulating the vagus nerve can also reduce treatment-resistant depression. So just by learning one breathing technique you can activate your relaxation response, decrease distress, and increase self-control. Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s one of those things that seems simple, and yet our automatic process is to breathe in our chests, especially when stressed. It’s always difficult to change habits, this one included. After a lifetime of breathing from our chests, it can also be difficult to figure out how to move the diaphragm. Sometimes it takes a few tries before the diaphragm loosens up enough to start moving.
I encourage you to practice breathing for a few minutes a day, a few times a day, to start with. Also take time throughout the day to check your breathing. Are you breathing from your chest or your belly? What causes you to switch from belly breathing to chest breathing? Many of my clients report that they never realized how frequently they held their breath until they started checking in with their breathing.
So to begin with, let’s find your diaphragm. Sit comfortably in a chair and put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Take five normal breaths. Don’t try to change anything at this point. You simply want to observe how your body moves with each breath. Does your top hand move? Your bottom hand? Both? Neither?
Now put both hands on your belly, right at your belly button. Now try breathing all the way down to your hands, pushing your hands out as your belly expands. Sometimes it helps imagining that you are sipping through a straw all the way down to your belly button. You can breathe in and out through your nose or your mouth, whatever is most comfortable for you at this point.
Now your ribcage and diaphragm is three dimensional, so not only can it expand forward, it can expand to the sides and the back as well. Place your hands on your waist and then guide them up to rest on your lower ribs. Go ahead and inhale, pressing into your hands, feeling your ribcage expand to the sides. Do this for a few breaths until you can feel the ribcage moving with each breath. Lastly, feel your lower and mid back against the chair. As you inhale, see if you can feel your body pressing back into the chair, right in the area at your waist and just above it.
Now that you know where your diaphragm is, let’s practice breathing with it. If you try taking big deep breaths most likely you will hyperventilate and feel lightheaded and dizzy. Not quite the effect we’re going for. Instead, you are simply breathing from a different part of your lungs. You can take very soft, easy breaths, and just focus on making the belly move instead of the chest.
Any time you are working on breathing exercises, if you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, stop for a minute and just breath naturally. After a minute or two, go back to practicing the exercise. It is common to feel a bit woozy for those who are chronic chest breathers. Go slowly and gently as you learn this new technique.
Once you’ve learned how to breathe from your diaphragm you can then work on lengthening your exhale. Long inhales are activating breaths whereas long exhales are relaxing breaths. Start by counting your inhale and exhale. See if you can make the inhale and exhale the same length (e.g., inhale for 3, exhale for 3). Then work on slowly extending the exhale (e.g. inhale for 3, exhale for 4. Next breath, inhale for 3, exhale for 5.) Find the breath that is most comfortable for you. Again, any time you feel a bit woozy, stop for a minute, breathe normally, and then go back to practicing the exercise.
Using Diaphragmatic Breathing for Relaxation
Some people like to focus on counting during the breath, some will focus on the physical sensations of the breath, and some like to focus on words, such as “breathing in, breathing out” with each breath. Experiment to find what suits you best. I personally like to focus on the physical sensations, feeling the air at my nose, the expanse of my belly, the feel of my back pressing against a chair, etc. Sometimes I also like to hear the sound of the ocean in my breath, the rise of a wave building with my inhale, and the crash of the wave rushing up the shore with my exhale. Again, experiment to see if there is an image or sound that is relaxing for you to focus on as you practice your breathing.