Take a minute to sit in a chair with your back straight. Now put one hand on your chest, and the other one on your stomach. Which hand moves in and out when you breathe? Ideally, you would want the hand on your stomach to be the one moving the most when you breathe.
Fight or flight, or stressful breathing, tends to be quicker and shallower and involves muscles in the chest and shoulders that aren’t primarily designed for breathing. Normal, relaxed breathing uses the diaphragm almost exclusively and the air you breathe travels to the deepest parts of your lungs.
When we focus on deep, slow breathing, the result is that we interrupt the stress response and return to a more natural, healthier state of being.
If you watch a very young baby sleeping, you will notice that she breathes so that her stomach moves in and out. The chest doesn’t move at all. Animals breathe this natural way when they are at rest as well. On the other hand, people with chronic stress tend to breathe either exclusively with their chest or with their stomach and chest simultaneously.
Begin by closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. Don’t try to change anything yet, just tune into your rhythmic breathing pattern. Keep your attention on your breath. If you notice yourself thinking of other things, gently bring our thoughts back to your breathing. You may want to place your hands on your stomach.
After a few minutes of attentive breathing, begin to change your breathing pattern by allowing your breath to go down as deep as possible into the lowest reaches of your lungs. When you do this your stomach will naturally move outward. Don’t concern yourself with how quickly or slowly you inhale and exhale. Just focus on the depth of your inhalations and the ease of your exhalations. Notice your hands, if they are resting on your stomach, moving out as you inhale and moving back in as you exhale.
To help you maintain your focus on this deep, slow breathing, use this counting method: Start counting backward from twenty (or whatever number you choose). When you inhale, say the number “twenty.” When you exhale, say the word “relax.” Inhale again and say the number “nineteen.” On the next exhalation, say, “relax.” Continue down this way until you reach zero.
If you notice your mind start to wander (it very likely will), gently bring your thoughts back to the relaxing rhythm of your breathing and your counting. Your breathing will naturally become slower and deeper as you do this.
You may increase the effect by holding the breath between the inhalation and exhalation. When you inhale, say the word “twenty.” Hold the breath for three or four seconds. Then begin to exhale slowly. Once all of the air is expelled, pause briefly before your next inhalation.
People who have trouble falling asleep find this technique very useful in helping them nod off more quickly and remain asleep through the night. Others find that with regular practice, their overall breathing rates go down as their bodies return to their natural relaxed states. Many of my students have found decreases in their own breathing rate from up to thirty breaths per minute down to five or six per minute as they practice this type of breathing during the semester.
To interrupt the stress response, where your body is tense and tight, and move to a more relaxed and healthier state, try this relaxation exercise called Relaxing Restful Breathing.
Many people prefer a relaxation download because it has music that drowns out distractions and helps your brain move from the beta brainwave activity to the alpha and other lower levels of brainwaves where optimal relaxation and restorative rest can occur in a short period of time. It also has directions to help you focus on your breathing which keeps your mind in the here and now, rather than wandering off thinking about future events.
If you are interested, these exercises can be downloaded on a phone, i Pod, i Pad, mp3 player, computer, or other audio device. They are inexpensive and can be used over and over again. Relaxation downloads