Breathing for Relaxation


Breathing for Relaxation

Like so many of you reading this, I often feel as though I am faced with lots of demands and never seem to have enough time to get everything done. Between work, the kids, chores, and activities there is always something to do and the day ends all too soon. Being pulled in multiple directions everyday is one of the bigger things that causes me stress. Then of course there are the little things that pile up throughout the day. Traffic. Temper tantrums. Fatigue. Difficult interactions with others. Even on a relatively normal day, stressors can be everywhere.

Most of us feel some sense of stress, frustration, anxiety, or tension throughout the day or week. Using relaxation skills regularly can help to not only decrease feelings of stress in the moment, but can improve your mood longer term as well(2). Making time to practice relaxation skills consistently has been found to be associated with better mental health outcomes and lower levels of reported stress and even improvement in some health conditions(3).

Even if you’re one who typically experiences very little stress, keeping relaxation skills handy for when stress does come up can be very helpful. One of my favorite set of skills for relaxation are breathing exercises. I like these for a few reasons. A primary reason is that you’re already breathing all the time. It’s an easy skill set to build because this is something that you are already doing. It’s also fairly time effective. You can practice breathing skills with very little time, making this convenient for those who have little time in their busy schedules. It’s also a skill set that can be used anywhere, anytime and won’t draw attention from others. You can use breathing skills before public speaking, during a stressful work meeting, while driving in your car to an event, or when trying to keep your cool when having a difficult interaction with someone. The high level of adaptability make breathing skills a great place to start in developing a tool box for effectively coping with stress, anxiety, and frustration. A very well-established breathing exercise is diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic Breathing/Belly Breathing

The goal of this breathing exercise is to both slow breathing as well as deepen the breath by breathing into the belly (using diaphragm muscles) which can help increase feelings of relaxation and help if you feel you may be close to having a panic attack. During this exercise you’ll be focused on a specific strategy for breathing and use some mindfulness - that is focus on how you’re breathing as you’re breathing.

  1. Begin by sitting back in a reclined position or lying down, if possible, to take pressure off your abdomen.

  2. Place on hand on your chest and one on your belly between the bottom of your ribcage and your belly button.

  3. Concentrate on taking a slow, long breath in through your nose allowing that air to move down into the bottom of your lungs and belly (diaphragm).

  4. With each breath, you should notice movement with the hand on your belly as the air moves into your diaphragm and fills that space. There should be little movement of the hand on your chest.

  5. Inhale only as long as is comfortable and slowly exhale through your mouth or nose. As you exhale you can say “relax” in your mind to help release tension.

  6. After your belly breath, return to normal breathing for 30-60 seconds letting yourself breathe at your own pace as deeply or as shallowly as is comfortable.

  7. Repeat the above steps.

  8. If time allows, you should practice these steps (belly breath followed by 30-60 seconds of normal breathing) for 5-10 minutes one or more times a day.

Practicing this breathing technique regularly, both in times of distress and times of clam, may help you in decreasing your overall physical and emotional tension and distress (1, 2, 3). Start practicing today and see if you can commit to a week or two of daily practice. At the end of that time period check-in with yourself and see if continued practice of diaphragmatic breathing feels valuable to you.

  1. Breathing retraining: A rational placebo? (Garssen, de Rueter, & Van Dyke, 1992).

  2. General Prinicples and Empirically Supported Techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (Hazlett-Stevens & Craske, 2009).

  3. The Psychology and Physiology of Breathing: In Behavioral Medicine, Clinical Psychology, and Psychiatry. (Fried, 1993)