Have you ever watched a baby breathe? Their little bellies rise and fall with each breath cycle. This deep breathing, which is also called diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, is the natural way we all breathe when we’re young. But over time, most of us begin to take shallower breaths that may not reach as deep into our lungs.
The good news is, we can relearn how to breathe deeply. This type of breathing can lower stress, benefit our health and improve our well-being.
“Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is a type of breathing that involves the diaphragm. That’s the dome-shaped muscle found underneath your lungs,” said Kali Mixon, a physical therapist assistant with Banner Health.
Contracting and relaxing your diaphragm helps your body get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out more easily. When you aren’t breathing with your diaphragm, you use more energy. That’s because your chest, neck and upper back muscles have to take over and work harder.
The benefits of belly breathing
One of the key benefits of diaphragmatic breathing is that it may help reduce stress and help you relax. When you breathe this way, it triggers your body’s relaxation response. That can lower your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
If you’re dealing with a stressful situation, deep breathing can help you stay calm. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing regularly may help you manage chronic stress; make you feel calmer and build your resilience.
Here are some other ways deep breathing brings benefits:
- More oxygen for your body: With diaphragmatic breathing, you inhale more deeply. That means you take in more oxygen. More oxygen may increase your energy, help you think more clearly and improve your physical performance.
- Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression: This deep, rhythmic breathing pattern can help calm your mind, reduce anxiety and promote well-being. It’s a good strategy to add to your toolbox for coping with anxiety and depression.
- Improve breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing may improve your lung function and capacity. Because it fills your lungs fully, it may be helpful for people who have conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Enhance body-mind connection: Belly breathing may make you more aware of the connection between your body and your mind. Focusing on your breath and taking deep, intentional breaths may help you foster a sense of mindfulness, grounding and self-awareness.
- Better digestion: “A little-known fact about diaphragmatic breathing is that it massages the vagus nerve,” Mixon said. That’s a nerve that helps control digestion and other body functions. Belly breathing can trigger your “rest and digest mode.” So, it may help lower constipation, support digestion and make your bowels work more smoothly.
Here’s how to do it
“Diaphragmatic breathing involves taking slow, deep breaths and allowing the belly to rise and fall with each inhale and exhale,” Mixon said. Ideally, you want to find a comfortable, quiet place to practice.
- Find a comfortable position. Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor or lie on your back with a pillow under your knees for support.
- Relax your body. Close your eyes and take a moment to release any muscle tension. Pay attention to relaxing your shoulders, neck and jaw.
- Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your upper belly, below your ribcage. This will help you feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
- Take a slow, deep breath through your nose. As you inhale, imagine your belly pushing out against your hand. Let the breath fill your lungs deeply.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, letting the air out all the way. As you exhale, feel your belly slowly sink back down. Focus on the way you feel relaxed as your breath releases.
Continue this pattern, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Take your time with each breath, and let your belly rise and fall. Aim for a slow and steady rhythm at a pace that feels comfortable to you.
“Many people find that taking two to three seconds to inhale and four seconds to exhale feels right,” Mixon said.
As you breathe deeply, focus on how your breath feels as it enters and leaves your body. You may want to repeat a calming word or phrase in your mind with each breath.
To start, practice deep breathing for a few minutes each day. Some people have trouble with this type of breathing at first since it’s unfamiliar. Mobile apps, smartwatches and breathing exercises can help guide you. Add time slowly as you become comfortable with the technique.
Once you get more familiar with diaphragmatic breathing, you can practice it during times of stress, before important tasks or as a way to relax. You can make belly breathing a part of your daily life by breathing this way when you’re sitting at your desk before meals or at bedtime.
“Many people practice three to four times a day. Others use this technique as needed to improve their breath control throughout the day,” Mixon said.
You can talk to a meditation teacher if you want more guidance. If you have health problems and you’re concerned about this type of breathing, talk to your primary care provider or a respiratory therapist.
The bottom line
Diaphragmatic breathing is a simple technique that may help you reduce stress, feel more relaxed, get more oxygen to your body, support your digestion and improve your overall well-being. Adding deep breathing to your daily routines may improve your physical, mental and emotional health.
If you would like to talk to a health care provider for personalized guidance on how to add diaphragmatic breathing to your routine, reach out to Banner Health.