Diaphragmatic Breathing - A Simple Tool To Reduce Stress

Christina Carreau BA, ND

Too many of us are operating under the premise that we need more hours in the day. Our ‘to do’ lists often exceed our time constraints, so that the only way to get everything done, is to rush and to hurry. Part of the problem with rushing and hurrying is that it activates our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight response. This response increases heart rate, respiratory rate, perspiration, blood pressure and directs blood flow towards skeletal muscle and away from our gastrointestinal organs and extremities. This is not a big deal if you are only activating this system a few times per week but when this fight or flight response becomes our main operating system on a day to day basis, it can have long-term negative effects. Your adrenal glands start to secrete corticoids, which inhibit digestion, reproduction, growth, tissue repair and suppress both our immune and inflammatory systems. These are all very important functions that keep your body healthy so we need to be sure that we are not over-activating our sympathetic nervous system on a regular basis.

I would also like to point out that stress does not happen to us. Events happen in the world. You experience those events (A), engage in self-talk about those events (B), and then experience an emotion resulting from the self-talk (C). The events do not cause the emotion, the self-talk does. If your self-talk is negative, overwhelmed and stressed out, then you will create unpleasant emotions and further perpetuate stress. This is part of the classic glass half empty versus glass half-full analogy. How do you see the world? Is your self-talk helping you or harming you? These are important questions to ask yourself, as we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to escalating our stress levels. So become aware not just of your stress levels, but also how you are coping with stress, where you are carrying stress in your body and whether your self-talk is working against you.

The good news is that the same mechanism that turns the stress response on, can also turn it off. The ‘relaxation response’ is the responsibility of our parasympathetic nervous system. So as soon as you decide that the stressful situation you are dealing with is no longer stressful, your nervous system stops sending emergency messages to your brain and that shuts down the fight or flight reaction, thereby normalizing heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, etc. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the ways that we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system. Studies have shown that breathing exercises are effective in reducing anxiety, panic attacks, depression, irritability, muscle tension, headaches, fatigue and stress. Here is a simple breathing exercise that can help de-activate the stress response and promote relaxation. Remember small changes today amount to big changes over time.

Diaphragmatic or Abdominal Breathing

  1. Lie down on the floor on a rug, blanket or yoga mat in ‘corpse pose’ – your spine straight, legs flat and slightly apart, toes pointed outward, arms flat at your sides not touching your body, with your palms facing upward and your eyes closed.
  2. Bring your attention to your breathing. Take a few breaths in this position.
  3. Gently place your hands on your abdomen. As you inhale, feel your abdomen rise and as you exhale, feel your abdomen fall. Breathe through your nose for this exercise.
  4. As you inhale say to yourself,  ‘I relax my body’ and as you exhale  say to yourself, ‘ I relax my mind’. You can also say ‘in’ for three seconds as you inhale and ‘out’ for three seconds as you exhale. You can say whatever you would like during this breathing exercise and in fact if you can keep your mind focused on the task at hand you do not need to say anything at all.
  5. Try and repeat this for 5-10 minutes everyday. Practice makes perfect.

The goal of practicing diaphragmatic breathing on a regular basis is to re-program your nervous system to be in a place of calm and to activate relaxation. Change takes time, so we need to give the body a constant reminder that we are not stressing about the past or the future, but that we are here in the present moment, promoting relaxation.

Do you have 5 minutes to dedicate to your health? Only you can make time for yourself. Don’t wait until stress is negatively impacting your health, put in the time now to prevent illness and ‘dis’-ease down the road. This quote by Syndey J. Harris sums it up quite nicely, ‘The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.’