Recently, a friend asked me: “Why is belly breathing so important?”
Finally, I thought, an easy question!
Then I started to explain. In the process, my answer became long and complicated. Scientific. I realized I was losing my friend’s attention and my own breathing became shallow as my body tensed. What was I doing? Trying to sound smart? Over-explaining? Stressing out and doing the opposite of belly breathing?
Yes, to all of the above. Because belly breathing is simple. And complicated.
Belly breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, is a simple practice with a complex anatomical explanation. We can talk about the mechanics of breathing or the effects on the nervous system. We can discuss blood pH and appropriate levels of Carbon Dioxide. We can. But it’s not necessary. I find it sufficient to convey the simple facts about the WHY and HOW of belly breathing – it is what most people need to understand. I’m going to add a bit about shallow, chest breathing (the opposite of belly breathing) as well.
(For those of you who want more, there is ample – nay, more than ample – information about the anatomy of breathing and all the sciency stuff that surrounds it on the web. HEREs a helpful Q&A site to get you started.)
WHY belly breathing?
Deep, belly breathing is how your body’s rest & digest response kicks in.
- It encourages full oxygen exchange
- It slows the heartbeat and can lower blood pressure
- It tells your brain you are safe
HOW to belly breath:
If you are able, use the nose to inhale and exhale.
- Inhale deeply, inflating the belly
- Exhale completely, deflating the belly
There are many (many) belly breathing exercises you can practice. The 4:4 breathing exercise is a favorite of mine.
- Breathe in slowly to the count of 4
- Exhale slowly to the count of 4
- Do three rounds of 10, resting between sets
This practice will calm the nervous system and relax you.
I use this exercise in the dental chair (yeah…), before (and while) speaking to a group, and whenever I’m having a tired dip in my day or an unnecessary stress response. It is a balancing practice.
Shallow, chest breathing is an indicator that your body is in stress response. First, I want to say stress response is not always a bad thing. We need it to:
- Study for and take a test
- Meet a deadline at work
- Get a good cardio workout done
- Run away from a hungry lion
But we tend to spend too much time in stress response. It takes a toll on the body and mind. It sabotages wellness. Frequent shallow, chest breathing can:
- Trigger anxiety
- Cause cardiovascular problems
- Induce fatigue and insomnia
I hope I kept this simple and to the point. I’m not breathing shallow or feeling stressed at present so I’m going to assume this is straight forward and helpful. My goal.
My hope: the next time you find yourself stressed when you are not under valid pressure or being chased by a hungry animal, consider trying 4:4 breathing. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Relax. It’s going to be okay.