Harness the power and health benefits of diaphragmatic breathing.
By Heike Fallon
"Take a deep breath.” We have heard this phrase before, but do we actually do it?
Breathing is an autonomic function regulated by the brain stem, so we don’t really have to think about it to make it happen. We breathe about 25,000 breaths per day, almost all of which are unconscious. On the other hand, breathing can be influenced by our behavior, feelings, and mental state, which can lead to altered breathing patterns.
In our current COVID-19 crisis, wildfire catastrophe, and divisive political situation, many of us are more stressed and anxious. When the body is stressed and we feel anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and our breathing becomes shallower and more frequent. In return, shallow and fast breathing can contribute to more anxiety, muscular tension, panic attacks, headaches, and fatigue. If this feedback loop continues for a few months, our brain adapts to it and decides it is a normal pattern.
Unfortunately, this altered habitual breathing pattern can negatively affect your brain, body, and overall well-being.
Using the diaphragm and taking slow, gentle, and deep breaths can help us to remain calm and relax. It can also help with the following:
Reducing muscle tension
Enhancing physical performance
Improving cognitive performance (concentration and memory)
Reducing or eliminating pain
Decreasing negative effects of stress
Improving blood pressure
Strengthening immune function
Regulating heart rate
Reducing stress response
The diaphragm is a muscle that sits at the base of the chest and separates the abdomen from the thoracic cavity. It contracts and flattens when you inhale. This creates a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, and the air is pushed out of the lungs.
Like any muscle, you can strengthen your diaphragm with special exercises. Diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing, is the best way to start. It involves inhaling deeply and slowly through the nose so that your lungs fill with air as your belly expands. If you are already good at this form of breathing, place your other hand on your lower back and try to expand in the back as well.
Ideally you want to be able to inhale with your diaphragm in any situation. Go ahead and see how you are doing during your workouts. Are you able to breathe by using your diaphragm during squats, in yoga poses, or on a walk with your dog? If not, make this your goal!
Heike Fallon is a Neuro Sports Therapist and Certified High Performance Coach living in El Segundo. She is online at xpandhealth.com and on Facebook/Instagram @xpandhealth.
This story appears in the October 2020 issue of The El Segundo Scene.