Breathing. It sounds easy enough. In fact, we do it all day long without even needing to think about it. It is automatic and controlled by our autonomic nervous system. Thank goodness. However today I want to talk about a specific type of breathing that is actually under our own control – deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Singers use it, babies use it…we can all do it! The benefits of this type of breathing are wonderful not just in times of stress, such as those our global family is facing now, but in times of health as well. It is a connection to our selves. A lifeline for the body, the mind, and the spirit.
What is deep breathing anyway? Do you need a paper bag or any gadgets? Does it take a lot of practice and incredible fitness levels? Deep breathing is free, easy and you already came into this world knowing how to do it. Normal breathing is short and fairly balanced in the length of inhalation and exhalation. Stress breathing is even shorter and shallower using mainly the top portion of the lungs.
Deep breathing draws the air in slower and more deliberately through the nose, expanding the ribcage, contracting the diaphragm and flattening its shape moving the intestines down toward the pelvis. If you put your hand over your abdomen, you will feel it expand outward like a balloon. Air is pulled deep into the lower lobes of our lungs where oxygen is exchanged is more efficiently. The exhale, is even slower and longer through the mouth as if you were breathing into a straw. The muscles of the neck and ribcage relax and the ribs drop back down. The diaphragm moves back up into its domed position and the organs slide back into their place. The nervous system takes its foot off the gas pedal and we relax physically and emotionally. Calmness and quiet returns and for a few moments, we are simply in the present moment.
The effects of stress can be felt throughout the whole body. Stress triggers the nervous system to orchestrate a response that involves all 11 major organ systems of the human body. From poor sleep, headaches and muscle tension to digestive discomfort, skin disruptions, decreased immunity and inflammation. So, you can see why having some techniques that we can use to deal with all of the many different types of stress we face, is worthwhile not only when we already feel unwell but when we want to stay well.
Deep breathing can be practiced anytime, anywhere as often as we need. Practiced daily, deep breathing, especially when paired with meditation, is successful in evoking a relaxation response (Benson and Klipper, 1975). You can also take advantage of it in other self-care techniques that also incorporate deep breathing such as yoga and stretching.
Normally, as a massage therapist, I enthusiastically share the power and place of “touch” in our lives. It is indeed my favorite approach to maintaining health and wellbeing. In its absence, I confess to being quite grumpy and disconnected. Well, I guess its time for some deep breathing.