Are you feeling stressed or always on edge? Are your neck muscles always stiff and tired? It could be your posture, or it could be the way you’re breathing. We don’t often think about each individual breath we take, but did you know that there’s a correct way to breathe?
What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
The diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that sits horizontally beneath the lungs, contracts to pull downward in order to increase the volume of the chest cavity; this allows space for the lungs to inflate. With every breath, air sacs in the lungs fill up with oxygen that is transferred into blood and brought to all living tissues of the body, keeping each cell alive. Because of the unique shape of the rib cage, there are few ways in which it can expand. The most efficient way is to contract the primary inspiratory muscle, the diaphragm, to pull downward on the chest cavity. The alternative is to contract the much smaller, supplementary inspiratory muscles found in the neck and shoulders to elevate the ribs upward.
Inefficient Breathing Patterns
A quick screen to figure out whether you are breathing diaphragmatically can be performed in the comfort of your own home. Start by lying face up on the floor, with a yoga mat for comfort if you have one. Place one hand just below the bottom of your sternum, and the other hand at the center of your chest just below your collarbones. Take a regular breath in as you normally would and feel for your belly hand to move up toward the ceiling first. The hand on your chest should follow soon after but with considerably less motion. If you find that your belly hand is staying in relatively the same place, or only moves minimally, you are not breathing with your diaphragm. To correct this, you need to relearn and practice the motion until it becomes second nature.
How to do it
Learning how to breathe with your diaphragm is easier to learn lying face up on the floor. In the same position as the belly screen test, relax your abdominal muscles and take a nice, slow, big breath through your nose, bringing it into your belly and down toward your feet. If you’ve been chest breathing this whole time, this motion is going to feel unnatural at first. The point right now is to exaggerate the movement in order to get used to it. Feel your belly inflating first, then your chest. As you start to exhale, relax your belly, allowing the diaphragm to also relax. Contract your abdominal muscles to push more air out of your lungs. Feel your rib cage compress as you expire as much air as you can. You did it! This is how you breathe using your diaphragm. As you get used to this motion, you can progress with a seated position.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of breathing diaphragmatically are numerous. Breathing properly means taking the stress off of other muscles so they can focus on doing the job they’re meant to do. When the diaphragm fails to increase chest volume by pulling downward, the muscles of the neck are forced to overwork by helping to pull the rib cage upward. A stronger diaphragm will allow the body to consume less energy in order to perform the task of breathing. The abdominal muscles are then able to go through its normal rhythmic motion of contracting and relaxing as it should.
Once the diaphragm has been retrained to function properly and with minimal effort, breathing should feel more natural and less like work on the body. The technique used to retrain the diaphragm can also be used as a method of relaxation that has been proven to reduce anxiety, heart rate, breathing rate, and skin/peripheral body temperature.
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most necessary but often overlooked functions of daily living. We don’t need an inefficient breathing pattern adding undue stress on top of the unavoidable stresses that we already experience in daily life. Learning to belly breathe is a good way to help calm the tension of the upper neck and shoulders. If you are already a belly breather, it doesn’t hurt to take some time out of the day to practice exaggerated diaphragmatic breathing as a relaxation technique after a long day to reduce your heart rate and anxiety.
Chen YF, Huang XY, Chien CH, Cheng JF. The Effectiveness of Diaphragmatic Breathing Relaxation Training for Reducing Anxiety. Perspect Psychiatr Care. 2017 Oct;53(4):329-336. doi: 10.1111/ppc.12184. Epub 2016 Aug 23. PMID: 27553981.