Breathing for Relaxation

August 16, 2010  |  anxiety, breathing, relaxation, tension
When I went to medical school, I never expected to spend much of my time teaching people how to breathe. I figured that everyone breathes enough to live until they literally expire for the last time, but it turns out that learning to breathe more consciously is one of the easiest and most profound ways to reduce your tension and anxiety levels.
Here is a simple breathing experiment. The goal is to learn how to breathe through your abdomen, letting your belly move and even stick out when you inhale. We call this “belly breathing,” though technically it’s called “diaphragmatic breathing” because we use the diaphragm, the large muscle that separates the abdomen from the chest, to expand the chest and draw the breath deeper into the lungs. This deeper, more relaxed breathing not only improves our oxygenation and energy, but also eliminates waste products and switches on the parasympathetic (or relaxation response) part of our autonomic nervous system. This is the part that takes over when our bodies are operating in the ”all clear, no worries” mode they are meant to be in most of the time.
The simplest way to learn abdominal breathing is to use a method we use to teach it to children—it’s called “balloon breathing.” Lie on your back if that is comfortable, or if not, you can do this lying on one side or even sitting. Place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen and just notice which hand moves more when you breathe normally. Don’t try to change anything at this point– just notice which hand moves first as you inhale and which one finishes up the breath. If your chest hand moves first, see what happens if you consciously start the breath with the abdomen. Imagine that there is a balloon in your belly and that when you breathe, you expand the balloon and draw the breath directly into it. This may be awkward at first but take a few minutes and experiment with it until you can start the breath by letting it come into the “balloon” and let your tummy expand.
You may want to loosen any tight or restrictive clothing, belt or undergarments while you learn to let the belly start the breathing. When you release your breath, imagine that the air is being released from the balloon in your belly and let yourself relax.
When you belly breathe, your diaphragm muscles contract first, drawing the bottoms of your lungs down, and pushing your belly out. This brings more breath into your lungs, improves the oxygenation of your blood, provides more energy, releases more carbon dioxide waste on the exhalation and also gives you a gentle spinal massage as your spine moves rhythmically with the increased movement. Belly breathing triggers a relaxation response and your whole system shifts into “clean up, paint up, fix up” mode. With no need to marshal forces to defend against external dangers or stresses, the body’s innate repair and renewal systems can work at their unhindered best.
Yoga practices built on thousands of years of experience with balancing the body and mind emphasize the importance of the breath. The yogic science of breath (called “pranayama”) can teach us some patterns of breathing that are calming, and others that are energizing. The patterns that are calming tend to concentrate on drawing the breath into the abdomen, making your exhalation longer than your inhalation, and pausing at both the end of the in breath and out breath.
Silently counting as you breathe in, pause, breathe out, and pause again will help you find a pattern that is easy and calming. Try inhaling on a count of four, pausing for a count of two at the end of breath, exhaling on a count of six, and holding the breath out for a count of two, but feel free to vary the pattern until you find what works best for you.

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