Jamie Sculley, ND
How to Do Deep Breathing for Stress Management
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
If you've ever taken a yoga class you're probably familiar with deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Your diaphragm is a muscle attached to the bottom of your ribcage that sits below your lungs and helps them expand as they fill with air.
It's easy to get caught up in all that we have to do in our daily lives and how we breathe isn't something we tend to think about. Most of us breathe quickly and shallowly, only bringing air into our upper chest. Deep breathing techniques change your breathing pattern by engaging the diaphragm, pushing the abdomen outward and filling the lower lungs before bringing air into the chest.
Deep breathing and meditation are great ways to manage stress because they involve focusing your mind on your breath to quiet the mental chatter. Keep reading if you're interested in the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing and how to make this stress management technique part of your daily life.
The benefits of deep breathing
Reduces stress and the stress hormone cortisol
Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
Can manage symptoms of IBS, depression and anxiety
Can help you fall asleep if you suffer from insomnia
How does deep breathing reduce stress?
There is a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine (noradrenaline) that's involved in the benefits of deep breathing. In the brain, norepinephrine controls how alert we are, how well we can focus and how motivated we feel. When we have too little being produced we feel less focused and less motivated and when we have too much we feel overstimulated and unable to concentrate. Deep breathing has been found to help regulate the amount of norepinephrine that's released in the brain. When it's balanced we have just the right amount of focus, concentration and motivation.
Like epinephrine and cortisol, norepinephrine is released during the stress response. Its purpose is to prepare the body for action, by raising blood pressure, increasing our heart rate, and bringing blood flow to our muscles, but in our daily lives we don't need to fight or run away. At work or school we need to be able to communicate and focus in a calm, controlled way, but too much of these hormones and neurotransmitters can make that difficult.
How to incorporate deep breathing into your life
Deep breathing isn't difficult to work into your daily routine. You can feel benefits with as little as 5-10 minutes per day. This amount of time is a good place to start and then work up to longer sessions as you get better at it. A morning practice can be a great way to start your day in a calm and centered way. Meditating in the evening can aid in relaxation and get you ready for easy, peaceful sleep.
I've heard people say they aren't "good at meditation," but I want to challenge this by saying that no one is good at it, at least at first. Being in control of your mind and breath is like learning anything else, it takes practice to be able to consistently focus and not get caught up in distractions.
A wandering mind is also normal to experience when you first start meditating. It's unusual for us to be completely quiet and it may feel odd or uncomfortable. It's the perfect time for mindless chatter to start up because there's nothing else to distract you. The trick is to let the thoughts pass by and to not get caught up in them emotionally or mentally. I think of them like clouds passing by in the sky. I notice them and then let them go, telling myself that I can deal with them when I'm done with my session.
How to do diaphragmatic breathing
You want to find a quiet place where you feel comfortable and won't be disturbed.
You can sit or lay down, although sitting is a good way to start because deep breathing may make you drowsy. Get into a comfortable position where your body can relax without strain or discomfort.
Close your eyes or look at a spot in front of you with a soft focus.
Spend the first couple minutes just paying attention to your breathing without changing it. Notice where you feel the breath. Do you breath through your nose or mouth? In your chest or abdomen? Is it shallow or deep? Fast or slow?
Scan your body from your head to your toes and check in with how you're feeling. Where are you holding tension? Do you have pain or discomfort?
Now start to change the breath. If it helps you, place your hands on your belly and chest so you can feel where the breath is going. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhale to a count of 4 beats, allowing the air to fill your lower lungs first, then the upper lungs in the chest. Allow your abdomen to relax outward. Then exhale slowly for 4 counts.
Repeat this for 5-10 minutes. When you notice your mind wandering just gently bring it back to the breath.
Tips: If you're feeling particularly stressed it can feel good to exhale through your mouth and allow yourself to audibly sigh and release tension in your shoulders while you do this. If a count of 4 feels too quick, try lengthening the breath to 6 or 8. You can also inhale for 4 and exhale for 8 to really let yourself relax on the exhale.
You can practice the above steps on your own or find guided sessions online. I've personally used Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer apps and recommend them to my patients. These have something for everyone and offer some free options. YouTube is a great place to find guided meditation. Right now I'm loving two channels: Agnes Vivarelli and Rebekah Borucki. Agnes incorporates affirmations into her meditations, and Rebekah posts often and has meditations for different purposes like anxiety, setting boundaries and gratitude.
Diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing techniques change your breathing pattern by engaging the diaphragm, pushing the abdomen outward and filling the lower lungs before bringing air into the chest. This type of breathing is a great way, along with meditation, to manage stress. In addition to lowering blood pressure and heart rate, deep breathing also reduces symptoms of IBS, anxiety, depression, and can improve sleep and insomnia. Deep breathing regulates stress chemicals in our body including cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine. As little as 5-10 minutes per day can have benefits. You can practice on your own or find many guided practices online.
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“Meditation: In Depth.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2 Jan. 2019, nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm#hed4.
Tyrrell, Fiona. “The Yogi Masters Were Right -- Meditation and Breathing Exercises Can Sharpen Your Mind.” EurekAlert!, 10 May 2018, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-05/tcd-tym051018.php.
Wilson, Debra. “Diaphragmatic Breathing and Its Benefits.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 2018, www.healthline.com/health/diaphragmatic-breathing.
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