Deep abdominal breathing helps reduce stress, control emotions, increase attention, and improve overall wellbeing. Deep breathing controls heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. By diverting attention from distracting thoughts, it reduces stress and anxiety.
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Breathing slowly and deeply from the abdomen leads to complete replenishment of the lungs with the inhaled air, resulting in full gaseous exchange between incoming oxygen and outgoing carbon dioxide. This process increases the activation of the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The activation of the vagus nerve leads to deceleration of the heart rate, stabilization of the blood pressure, relaxation of the muscles, diversion of attention from distracting thoughts and sensations, and induction of relaxation response.
In contrast, fast and shallow breathing from the chest induces a stress response by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Evidence suggests that an acute induction in breathing rate may lead to a panic attack. Similarly, chronic breathing problems can induce the level of anxiety and depression.
Reducing Stress Through Deep Breathing (1 of 3)
The term “relaxation response” was first coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Harvard Medical School. The relaxation response is a state of complete physical and mental rest, which is the opposite of stress. The stress response driven by the sympathetic nervous system is a normal physiological response to harmful events as a survival strategy.
Controlled breathing is one of the best techniques to trigger the relaxation response. Other techniques include body scan (controlled breathing together with muscle relaxation), guided imagery (imagining peaceful events/pictures/situations), mindfulness meditation (controlled breathing and focusing attention on the present moment), yoga, tai chi, and qigong (rhythmic breathing with a series of postures/movements), and repetitive prayers (repeating a short prayer while performing controlled breathing).
A person with a relaxed state of mind usually breathes slowly and deeply. Similarly, intentional practicing of controlled breathing can reduce the functioning of the sympathetic nervous system that regulates involuntary activities of the body, including heart rate and blood pressure.
Controlled breathing can benefit the physiological systems in many ways. It helps reduce heart rate, blood pressure, the level of stress hormones in the blood, and lactic acid accumulation in muscles. In addition, controlled breathing helps balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood and improves physical energy level, immune system functions, and overall wellbeing.
Controlled breathing can be performed in a quiet and comfortable place, either in a sitting or lying position. It is performed by taking a deep breath slowly through the nose, allowing the chest and abdomen to expand fully. Afterward, the inhaled air is expelled slowly through the nose or mouth.
There are different ways to perform breathing exercises, including diaphragmatic breathing and paced breathing. The main aim is to shift the focus to abdominal breathing from upper chest breathing.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle placed at the base of the lungs. It performs about 80% of the work during respiration. During inhalation, the diaphragm moves downward to increase space in the chest cavity, allowing full expansion of the lungs. During exhalation, the diaphragm moves towards the chest cavity to facilitate the outward movement of air.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, focuses on achieving a complete exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. This is vital for maintaining the body’s overall homeostasis. In patients with chronic lung diseases, inhaled air remains trapped in the lungs, pressing the diaphragm downward. This damages the muscle and reduces its working capacity. The strength of the diaphragm can be regained by practicing diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing is performed in a sitting or lying position. To perceive the movement during breathing, one hand can be placed on the upper chest and the other hand just below the rib cage. The air should be inhaled slowly and deeply through the nose towards the lower abdomen. During exhalation, abdominal muscles should be moved inward to help expel the air through pursed lips. The hand on the chest should not move during the entire process, while the hand on the upper abdomen should move up and down.
Alike other breathing exercises, paced breathing helps maintain the balance between respiratory and cardiac systems. In this breathing technique, the duration of exhalation should be longer than the inhalation. If inhalation is performed for a count of 2 – 4 seconds, exhalation should be performed for a count of 4 – 6 seconds.
The air should be inhaled through the nose slowly and deeply, allowing the chest and lower abdomen to expand. During exhalation, air should be released slowly through the mouth.
There is another breathing technique wherein air is inhaled through the nose for a count of 4 and held in the stomach for a count of 4. Afterward, air is released through the mouth for a count of 8. This technique is very helpful in soothing the nervous system and reducing the stress level.