The holiday season should be filled with joy and laughter, but often times stress and depression consume it. All of the hustle and bustle of going from store to store and party to party can get overwhelming. Now is a great time to remember the importance of the breath.
The Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing
The first thing we do when we are born, is take a full, deep belly breath. This is an instinctual response to our new environment, yet it is one that is so quickly abandoned in adulthood.
Proper breathing has many different names: diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing, to name a few. It involves taking in a deep breath so that you fill your lungs completely, allowing your diaphragm (the dome-shaped sheet of muscle that extends across the bottom of the rib cage and divides the chest from the abdomen) to drop downward, pulling your lungs with it so they can fully expand and fill with air. As your lungs expand, they will press against abdominal organs and you will notice your belly rise. As you breath out, the diaphragm relaxes and comes back upward against your lungs, helping to expel carbon dioxide as you exhale.
Notice that with a full, deep breath I said the belly rises and not the chest. Most adults breathe only with their chest and not with their belly. This occurs for a few different reasons:
- Stress affects breathing – the stress of traffic jams, work deadlines, holiday shopping and family difficulties stimulates our sympathetic nervous system, or our “fight or flight” response. This stressful state alters our breathing pattern by making our breaths in and out shorter and more rapid.
- Posture affects breathing – poor posture has become an epidemic with the amount of computer work we do in today’s society. This posture involves a slumped forward, shoulders rolled-in position that inhibits full diaphragm breathing and promotes shallow chest breathing.
- Body image affects breathing – a “washboard” stomach is considered very attractive in our culture. This encourages men and women to constantly contract their stomach muscles or suck in their tummies to appear thinner and so they fit into that holiday outfit. However, this adds tension and anxiety, and again forces us into shallow chest breathing.
The Problem with Chest Breathing
The problem with shallow chest breathing is that it decreases the diaphragm’s range of motion, which inhibits the lowest portion of the lungs from getting a full share of oxygenated air, creating a feeling of shortness of breath and anxiety. On the contrary, deep belly breathing encourages full oxygen exchange (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out), which slows the heartbeat and breathing rate and can lower blood pressure and stress levels.
Step-by-step Guide to Belly Breathing
- Find a comfortable and quiet place to lie on your back, either on a yoga mat or in bed, with a pillow under your knees to take pressure off of your low back.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your abdomen, just above your belly button. This allows you to feel your belly rise and fall as you breathe in and out and brings awareness to the depth of your breath.
- Focus on your breath as you breathe in slowly through your nose and appreciate your belly rising under your hand. The hand on your chest should remain relatively still.
- As you exhale, gently tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward along with your hand as you expel your breath out through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural). Again, the hand on your chest should remain relatively still.
- Once you begin to feel comfortable with the above steps, you can start to incorporate imagery and words with each breath to help you relax. For example, imagine that the air you breath in brings calmness into your body, and as you breathe out, imagine you are expelling the tension and anxiety with it. You can also use words as you breathe in and out to encourage relaxation. As you inhale, say “breathing in calm”, and as you exhale, say “breathing out tension”.
- As you begin exercising belly breathing, aim for 5-10 minutes of practice. Once you feel more comfortable, you can gradually add time until you are practicing for 20 minutes or more a day.
- You can also practice this technique while sitting in a chair. To perform belly breathing in this way, ensure you are sitting in a comfortable chair, with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your shoulders, head and neck relaxed. Continue with above steps 2-6. This technique can be very effective for dealing with anxiety while flying, as you can work on calming your nerves right from your seat.
Building Awareness of Your Breath
To bring more awareness to your breath, alternate normal and deep breaths several times. Pay attention to how you feel during each breath, as you inhale and exhale during a normal breath and during a deep belly breath. Shallow breathing generally feels tense and constricted, while diaphragmatic breathing produces relaxation. So, if you are stuck in a stressful moment and don’t have time to do a full 20 minute session, just take a minute to stop, close your eyes, and find your breath.
What better time to bring awareness to your breath than when you are waiting in line to buy your mother-in-law her Christmas present or when you are trying to beat the holiday traffic. Taking that moment to fill your belly and expel the tension will allow you to re-ground yourself and remember the joy and fun of the holidays.
The advice provided in this article is for information purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed healthcare provider. Consultation with a Chiropractor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.
Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School. Take a deep breath. May 2009.
Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School. Understanding the Stress Response. March 2011.
Mason, L.J. Guide to Stress Reduction. Ten Speed Press. November 2013.
The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Diseases and Conditions. Diaphragmatic Breathing.