The Power of Breath

Not long ago I was watching the Today Show, and the topic was how to live a longer and healthier life. One of the segments was focused on deep breathing and how researchers believe may play a key role in slowing the aging process. Deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing (more on that shortly), is one of my go-to skills I teach my clients. Why? It is highly effective, and can be used anywhere, at any time. And, now I may be able to add to that list it helps you live longer!

Our typical breathing tends to be shallow and happens in our chest. When we experience anxiety or stress, our breathing tends to become even more shallow and rapid, and can set off a downward spiral of physical symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors. Hyperventilation (i.e., an imbalance of our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels) may set in, which leads to feeling dizzy or lightheaded, which leads to thoughts that something is wrong with you, which leads to more rapid breathing, which leads to…

You get the idea, right?

One of the keys to stopping this cycle is to change your breathing. This is where diaphragmatic breathing (also known as deep breathing and belly breathing) comes into play. Instead of taking rapid, shallow breaths from your chest, you take slow, deep breaths from your belly. This encourages full oxygen exchange, slows your heartbeat, and lowers blood pressure. All of those scary physical symptoms that are signaling to you “something is wrong with me!” have been thwarted.

What if you don’t struggle with anxiety – can diaphragmatic breathing help you? Absolutely! For those who deal with day-to-day stress, have difficulties, winding down, difficulties sleeping, trouble “shutting your brain off” at the end of the day, diaphragmatic breathing can help you relax.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Instructions:

To start, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Place one hand on your belly, and begin taking a slow, deep breath in. You should feel your chest expand, and your belly rise. Then, slowly expel the air from your chest. Continue breathing this way, counting as you breathe in and out. Each person is unique, so the number of seconds for the in and out breaths do vary some. I usually start with “In… 2… 3… out… 2…. 3” with my clients and adjust from there. You do not want to breathe so deeply that you are feeling dizzy or lightheaded – that is specifically what we are trying to counteract! If you find that happens, breathe more shallow or take shorter in and out breaths.

It is most helpful, especially at the beginning, to have someone else (therapist, friend, spouse) count for you while you breathe. There is also a great app you can download called Breathe2Relax that will give instructions and guide you through diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

There are 2 things I think are crucial for diaphragmatic breathing to be effective:

Expectancies – Simply put, if you believe in the rationale and science behind diaphragmatic breathing, it is more likely to be effective. If you believe it is simplistic or silly, it probably won’t help you.

Practice – How likely do you think it is you would make the Olympic track and field team if you had only run one time in the last year? Just like athletes need to train to improve their physical fitness and skills, diaphragmatic breathing needs to be practiced to be effective. A good place to start is daily practice of 5-10 minutes,during a time you are not in the throws of anxiety or significant stress.

I’ve included some helpful links on diaphragmatic breathing below. If you are interested is learning more about anxiety management and relaxation, and live in the Austin area, please reach out to me at 512-521-1531 or laura@drlaurawahlstrom.com.

Mayo Clinic: Decrease Stress by Using Your Breath

Psychology Today: Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve

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