I’m sitting at my desk, stressed. Deadlines are impending and time is running “short.” And so is my breath. In fact, now that I notice it, I’m barely breathing at all. Actually, I’m holding my breath, occasionally taking tiny sips of air, huffing just enough air to stay alive.
But once I try to take a deep breath, it feels fake. I artificially inflate my upper chest cavity. I don’t feel any better. Quick Google search: Wait, am I breathing backward? Upside-down? Inside out? Yes. And, maybe all of the above.
Indeed, experts agree: This upper-airway-restricted “stress breathing” is the antithesis of wellness. Apparently, breathing for maximum health would mean my lower lungs or diaphragm should be rising as I inhale. And my belly should sink and shrink with the out-breath. In fact, my chest should barely move at all, according to the American Lung Association.
The more I explore, the more I realize how detrimental my unknowingly truncated style of breathing may be to so many aspects of life. This has to stop. It’s time for a reset. I’ve got to work on my belly breathing.
Why We Chest Breathe
It’s no wonder Americans are habitual chest breathers: We’re stressed, we hunch at our desks, we wear tight clothing, and our modern posture leaves much to be desired. Over time, all of this can weaken muscles, making it easier to rely on the more “accessible” chest breath. One American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation study showed just how much poor posture can lead to breathing problems. Some assert it could reduce lung capacity by up to 30 percent. That’s a lot.
Without enough oxygen, we tax our lungs and heart, which in turn activates the stress response hormone, cortisol. Our bodies don’t like excess cortisol. Too much of it unregulated over time is associated with unsavory stuff like weight gain, mood swings, sleep issues, and even brain functions like focus and decision-making. It’s a clear bio-marker for the chronic, long-term impacts of stress. (1)
In some cases, shallow chest breathing for too many years can create muscular tension that can cause structural problems in the body. And that just makes efficient abdominal-based breathing that much harder. So it takes some effort to reset habitual patterns. But it may just be worth it.
What is Belly Breathing?
Well, it’s another term for diaphragmatic-based breathing, or using that large, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of your lungs to do the heavy lifting. That’s what it’s there for. But most of us aren’t using it to its full capacity. When you use your diaphragm well, your breathing will naturally slow, decreasing overall oxygen demand and requiring less energy to breath.
Picture a baby sleeping on her back in a crib. Her belly rises and falls, barely engaging the upper lungs in any dramatic way. You, too, may breathe like this unconsciously when you sleep. But maybe not.
If your mouth is gently closed and you’re inhaling slowly through your nose, outside air can move deep into the diaphragm. When you breathe properly through the abdomen, it will feel like a balloon is gently expanding with each in-breath and falling back down or deflating with the out-breath. As the diaphragm contracts, the belly expands and your lungs fill with air. Essentially you’re creating negative pressure in the chest, which rushes air flow to the lungs.
When you breathe in and out through your mouth, whether because of blockages in the nasal passage, stress, or bad habits, unfiltered air makes its way to the chest in short sips. At night, this usually shows up as snoring or even sleep apnea, where the body essentially “chokes” on air. If you want to learn more about the long-term dangers of exclusive mouth breathing, read the recently released book Breath, by James Nestor. Building on his book research of famous breathing masters — freedivers — he worked with a Stanford professor to voluntarily restrict his breathing to the mouth, then the nose, for two weeks each, with disturbing physiological effects.
Benefits of Abdominal Breathing
There are huge benefits to getting an optimal breathing rhythm down throughout your day. Harvard Medical School points out that while cultural influences — like the desire to suck our stomachs in to look thinner — make abdominal breathing a harder sell, the vanity tradeoff is well worth it.
Shifting from erratic, anxiety-ridden chest breathing to the slower belly breath has the potential to increase how much oxygen and nutrients get to your cells, not to mention how much blood and nutrients go to key muscle blood and bones. That may be a boon for the supplements you take, too. More diaphragmatic breathing is also showing potential for affecting everything from digestion to cardiovascular health to stress reduction, and all the positive offshoots that come with those shifts. (2)
Just breathing from a deeper place, allowing the belly to rise as you take in air through your nose to filter it and letting it fall as you exhale quietly through your nose or mouth, can start to relieve tension instantly and enhance overall energy. At least one professional athlete, basketball star Steph Curry, is taking this to the next level by placing sandbags on his belly to strengthen his diaphragm and provide a leg up in the O2 department. And it works. Curry can intentionally lower his heart rate in the middle of a competitive basketball game, apparently.
How to Start a Belly Breathing Practice
While you don’t have to go to the extreme of sandbagging your belly, there are specific breath exercises you can spend a few minutes practicing in a dedicated way each day. No one even has to know, and that makes it kind of fun. And portable. Your breath is always with you.
You can rewire your breathing while watching TV, after a workout, in your car, or before bed to help you get to sleep. I’ve found success integrating such intentional breathing during the beginning of my morning meditation practice, gradually allowing the breath to fall away, along with stress.
But professionals have another method for kickstarting a practice that might get you breathing healthier faster. Try this tried-and-true series:
- Lie down.
- Place one hand on your abdomen, below your rib cage.
- Place the other hand on your chest.
- Slowly inhale.
- Focus on your abdomen, pressing up against your hand.
- The hand on your chest should stay still.
- Exhale smoothly, through your nose or pursed lips, tightening your abdominal muscles, feeling the pressure on the abdominal hand relax.
Try for at least 5 minutes a few times a day. As you get better, move to a chair and repeat the same pattern in an upright position. Then try it without your support hands. Eventually, you may even be able begin light exercise with this healthier, more efficient style of breathing.
Breathing the way nature intended is one of the simplest things we can do for our health. While it seems like an automatic biological process, it may be surprising that you’re respiring far too inefficiently. What easier step to take then to start becoming aware of how much you’re holding, hunching, and huffing. This insight alone may be a big, deep breath of fresh air.