Of all the health promoting tools and activities available to us, one of the simplest and most effective is to breath properly.
Right now it’s highly likely that you are not breathing correctly. Almost everyone breathes into their chest and not into the bottom third of the lungs. You can quickly check to see how you breathe by placing one hand on your chest and one on your belly.
Breathe in slowly and see whether your chest rises or your belly rises. If your chest rises first, you are not breathing correctly.
Try this breathing exercise now
If you want the scientific explanation of why and how this works keep reading. Or you can just trust me and do the following belly breathing exercise right now.
- Sit or lie down in a relaxed position and close your eyes. Put your left hand on the abdomen and your right hand on the chest.
- Take a slow breath through your nose into the belly. You should feel the hand on the belly move first. The hand on the chest should stay still or move only slightly.
- Try to do this in the most relaxed and easy way you can. It may help to think of the breath as a gentle breeze on warm day. Your breath should be nourishing, loving and caring.
- Exhale slowly and comfortably.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
Congratulations! If you just did the above exercise you are feeling much better because you just engaged the relaxation response and probably extended your life by 30 seconds as well!
When you first start this type of breathing it may feel difficult or labored. Don’t worry about that. Just keep practicing and it will become easier and more pleasurable.
Do this for 10 breaths 3 times a day. Do it when you’re sitting in traffic, just before you take the first bite of a meal, waiting in line, bored at a meeting or when you’re lying in bed and can’t sleep. You will be amazed at how much better you feel.
Why Belly Breathing Decreases Anxiety and Can Make You Healthier
The first big problem concerns the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that runs from the brain to every major organ in the body including the lungs and the heart.
The stress and the relaxation response occur through activation of the vagus nerve. Stress doesn’t just hurt the cardiovascular system but every organ in the body. It is extremely difficult to control the stress(sympathetic) response from thinking or will. However by breathing properly we can instantly activate the vagus nerve and engage the relaxation (para-sympathetic) response. Breathing well will not only help you feel more relaxed but also help you digest your food better, sleep better, and have more energy.
If you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks regular soft belly breathing can make panic attacks less likely and also be used to fend them off. If you do end up having a panic attack and it feels like you are going to suffocate, choke, or even die it is almost certain you are trying to breath into your chest. At this moment it helps to understand that you are experiencing the flight or fight response. Put your hand on your belly and push it out as you try to breath in and then strongly tighten your abdominal muscles as you try to breath out. It will feel labored but you will slowly begin to return to a more relaxed state.
Cardiovascular Disease Prevention
Finally considering cardiovascular (CVD) disease is the number one cause of mortality globally, it should interest you to minimize your risk. Breathing incorrectly can have a direct effect on your cardiovascular health. Research has shown that that the bottom of the lungs are about seven times more efficient at oxygen transport than the upper lungs (West, 2000). This means you will get higher oxygen levels along with a lower heart rate and decreased blood pressure all with less effort. By lowering blood pressure you are lowering one of the biggest risk factors for CVD.
So learn how to breathe in a deep and soft way. You’ll feel happier and healthier. I recommend setting a vibration alarm on your phone set to go off three times a day. Whenever the alarm goes off, stop for a moment and practice your belly breathing. You won’t regret it.
References and More Information
- West JB. Respiratory physiology: the essentials. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins; 2000.