Updated: Jan 14
Have you ever been stressed out of your mind and the person sitting next to you (a parent, a sibling, a friend, a teacher or a co-worker) turns to you and mutters the words “just relax.” After that person finishes pronouncing the letter “x” in relax you feel your blood starting to boil. To this day I am still dumbfounded by the “just relax” reply to someone's stress. As I sit here and write these words I am thinking to myself- Do people actually think that by telling someone to relax it actually helps them relax?!
If you are looking for a quick, easy and effective way to relieve stress just ignore the stereotypical comment to “just relax” and start deep breathing.
Deep breathing has many names like diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing and paced respiration and it has been around for eons (you can date it back to nearly 3,000 years ago from the practice of Kundalini Yoga and meditation) and now modern science is proving its effectiveness (we will get more into the research later). Outside of its stress relief effectiveness and health benefits we like breath work for it its accessibility. You don’t need to spend money on fancy gadgets or make a commitment for an entire year at your local gym. You just need your body, a floor or chair and preferably a quiet place.
Before we get into the details about deep breathing for stress relief I think it is important that we clear the air a little bit. A lot of people (influencers, pop media) are talking about deep breathing and they are often times telling the reader that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do it. To all of those folks, I kindly disagree.
There are a ton of different deep breathing methods, just like their are a ton of different practices of Yoga (Bikram v. Iyengar v. Vinyasa) or Meditation (Zen v. Mantra v. Transcendental). Let’s talk about some of the most common deep breathing methods first.
Top 6 Deep Breathing Methods from Greatist:
Abdominal Breathing (Diaphragmatic or belly breathing)
Progress Muscle Relaxation (learn more in our second blog post)
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Skull shining breath
In today’s post we are going to focus on Abdominal Breathing. Why? Because I feel like Abdominal Breathing is the foundation of breath practices. And it also serves as an important learning lesson to nearly every adult. Too many individuals are breathing wrong. You may be saying to yourself right now “yeah right, how could I possibly be breathing wrong?!”
If you don’t believe me, watch a baby breathe. You will see this beautiful, big, full breath starting from the babies stomach, not their chest. Their stomach will rise and fall to expand their lungs to capture as much air as possible. The engine of respiration is a thin muscle called the diaphragm (which sits below the lungs). As the diaphragm pulls in a big, full breath from the stomach the lungs fill and empty completely. From birth the baby never seems stressed for their next breath it is just a beautiful balance between inhale and exhale.
Now, if you look at just about any adult (or at least the uninitiated) you will find that most individuals are breathing from their chest. Their chest will rise and fall versus the stomach. The breath can be best explained by short and shallow rises and falls. And if you look carefully, it seems that the chest breather is always eager for their next breath. Unfortunately the skill of abdominal breathing oftentimes disappears as we age and enter into adulthood.
So what are the benefits of abdominal breathing and why do we unlearn such an important thing as we age?
According to this study, deep breathing is capable of creating an improvement in mood and stress both in self-reported evaluations and objective parameters. This includes decreases in heart rate and salivary cortisol levels. And from my professional personal training experience I have subjectively found deep breathing to help enhance client posture, movement quality, strength and power development. Deep breathing is not a panacea but when it comes to enhancing overall human function it can be instrumental.
I would like to now focus on one of the most important benefits of deep breathing:
Deep breathing can help kick us out of a physiological stress response.
This technique may be especially beneficial when you are trying to avoid unhealthy coping stradegies like misusing tobacco and alcohol.
If you watch most adults breath (it doesn’t matter if they are standing, walking or hiking Mount Everest. They are most likely getting by with shallow breaths using only chest breathing. Unfortunately for chest breathers, this is a really inefficient and ineffective way to breathe. Although chest breathing “works” chronic chest breathing can have negative consequences like:
Habituating your stress response.
When we chest breath you are actually making your body think there is a stressor nearby, all the time. Keeping your body in a chronic stress response can lead to a slew of negative mental and physical effects (learn more here).
Chest breathers have a hard time filling up their lungs to capacity with precious air. Imagine a car engine starving for air and fuel. Your body is missing out on essential fuel for performance!
Chronic stress can lead to lowered immune responses and adrenal fatigue (this may be why your always getting sick).
Creating tension in your muscles. When was the last time you had a tension headache and your neck/shoulders felt more like concrete than supple muscle.
So, how do you flip the script from a negative chest breather to a positive belly breather?
It can be as easy as 1-2-3.
Lay on your back, placing your right hand on your stomach, your left on your chest.
Draw your breathe in (inhale) from your belly, lifting your right hand as high as you can with your belly button. If you feel your left hand lift first, your still breathing from your chest, not your diaphragm!
Practice inhaling from your nose for 5 seconds and exhaling from your nose for 5 seconds.
Create a practice of deep abdominal breathing every day for about 10 minutes. As you start mastering your diaphragm and your abdominal breaths try 4-7-8 breathing.
With your nose, inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat this breath for 4-8 breathes or until you feel your brain and body relax.
We hope that you may use deep breathing as a tool for stress relief!
If you want to learn how to relieve your stress now, download Kopely's Free Stress Management Worksheet here!