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Have you had an experience that was frightening or dangerous? You may remember how your body responded. Likely you could feel your heart racing and your breathing become rapid and shallow. You may have started to perspire and felt your muscles tense up. This is a normal response by your body to try to protect you in that situation. You may have heard this called “Fight or Flight”.

woman breathing outside

During times of increased stress, anxiety, worry or with persistent pain, our body can respond in the same way. Our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and produces those physical responses. While we need that protection response, we do not want our bodies in that heightened state for an extended period. The over stimulation to the sympathetic nervous system can increase our sensitivity to pain, increase inflammation, increase blood pressure, lower our mood and cause digestive disturbances and insomnia.

The good news is that we have a system to assist your body in calming down and return to normal – The parasympathetic nervous system. Abdominal breathing can help to activate the parasympathetic system, promote relaxation, stress reduction and restore balance. Abdominal breathing can also increase efficiency in stretching and improve body awareness.

The Benefits of Abdominal Breathing

  • Encourages the parasympathetic system response of calming
  • Increases supply of oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body
  • Helps increase the supply of blood and nutrients to muscle blood and bones
  • Relaxes muscle spasm and relieves tension
  • Supports muscle growth and provides energy to get things done

The Abdominal Breathing Technique

Breathing exercises such as this one can be done whenever you find your mind dwelling on upsetting thoughts or when you are experiencing pain. Do you know if you are an abdominal breather or a chest breather?

  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a deep breath and feel where the movement is coming from.
  •  When you take a deep breath in, the hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the one on the chest. This ensures that the diaphragm is pulling air into the bases of the lungs.
  • If your chest rises you are breathing more shallow and may increase muscular tension at the neck
  • You may need to practice this several time to re-learn abdominal breathing
  • After exhaling through the mouth, take a slow deep breath in through your nose imagining that you are sucking in all the air in the room.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth.
  • Repeat the cycle at least 5 times

The use of the hands on the chest and abdomen are only needed to help you train your breathing. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to breathe into the abdomen, they are no longer needed.

This is the basics for abdominal breathing and easy to complete anytime and anywhere.

Proven Relaxation Methods

Below are some ideas for expanding on basic breathing.

Square Breathing:

  • Get into a comfortable position
  • Close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
  • Place a hand on your abdomen if you want to ensure correct technique
  • Take 4 seconds to breathe in through your nose
  • Hold the breath in for 4 seconds
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds
  • Wait 4 seconds and repeat the cycle at least 5 times

 Countdown technique:

  • Get into a comfortable position
  • Close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
  • Place a hand on your abdomen if you want to ensure correct technique
  • Take a deep breath in
  • Exhale through your mouth while thinking (loud to soft) 5-4-3-2-1-relax

Breathing with stretching:

  • As you go through your stretches, stretch to your pain-free end point
  •  breathe deeply through your belly and relax as you exhale. Focus on breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth.
  • This will encourage maximal range in that stretch while making the stretch more comfortable

Relaxing with technology:

  • Check your smart phone or watch for relaxation timers and reminders
  • There are many apps and websites for guided breathing, relaxation and meditation for further exploration

We hope you’ve learned some new ways to utilize breathing to promote relaxation, stress reduction and restore balance.


Previously posted November 20, 2014