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Relaxation breathing: How to feel less stress in under a minute

Updated on April 19, 2012

Wait, wait, hear me out! I know that you breathe perfectly well, and that you have for your whole life (the first nine months notwithstanding). What if I told you, however, that you can make some subtle alterations to how you breathe that can produce real, immediate stress-reduction? This is one of the most powerful things that I learned in massage school, and it has only been reinforced by what I have learned about breathing in grad-level psychology classes. I'm a big fan.

Take this slowly. You might feel a little light-headed at first, just like any time that you change your breathing (for swimming, for playing an instrument or singing). You might become hyper-aware of your breath, and that can be a little uncomfortable. Bear with me, however, and I think that you'll find it worthwhile. Note: if you have any breathing-related disorders, be slow and tentative with any changes, and remember that your healthcare professionals are always the best source for what's right for your unique body.

What I'm about to describe is often called "belly breathing," but is also known as diaphragmatic breathing. It involves de-emphasizing your chest when you breathe in, and allowing your abdominal muscles to relax. Why is this useful for relaxation? Belly breathing is what we do after a big meal, or while we're reading a good book in bed. It's a signal to the body that you are in a safe place, and that you are in rest-and-relax mode. This is different from chest breathing, which is great for getting a lot of air in and out quickly for when we need to do hard work, or for when we need to fight or flee.

So, why don't we do belly breathing as a matter of course? We do... when we're kids. Kids don't care whether their bellies distend a bit, as flat abs aren't really on their "important things" radar. Good for them. They also don't have years of hunching forward with their arms at a keyboard, or of sitting in a chair with a rounded back. These things keep the abdomen slack enough that "getting a good breath" means expanding the chest to allow for a flat diaphragm. Changing these patterns isn't a one-shot affair, and involves posture modification and mindfulness of our habits (which I will discuss in future notes and videos). Until we can make some more fundamental changes, belly-breathing can be used as a tool rather than as the default breathing pattern. That's okay, and it's a great start. If I'm right, you'll also find this tool to be pretty powerful.

Here's the gist:

  • Don't overdo it. This isn't about deep breaths, or about breathing only into the belly. It's about changing your abdominal tightness as you breathe. It's subtle. You can, of course, use this with deep breathing, but let's start simple.
  • Note your current level of shoulder tension, chest tension, abdominal tension, and mental stress. Go ahead, I'll wait... ... ... ... Okay. You may notice that this simple act of bringing awareness engenders a bit of relief. Tuck this knowledge into your back pocket for the future.
  • Note how you currently breathe in. This is where you might start feeling a little funny. Don't worry about it, the body is great at adapting. Is the breath causing your chest to expand, and perhaps your shoulders and your neck to tighten?
  • Place one hand gently on your belly (right at the belly button), and one on your sternum (right at the front of your ribcage).
  • Note how your breathing moves each hand. Does one more more than the other?
  • Make a conscious decision to allow your belly to relax. See if your lower hand moves out a bit more, and if your upper hand moves out a bit less. If there is no change, keep breathing at the same speed, but focus on moving that lower hand. It might take some practice to get in touch with your abdominal muscles, as we're taught from a young age that a tight belly is always a good idea.

That's it. You're belly breathing. Stick with it for 20 seconds. Keep your breathing at a natural, steady pace, and allow yourself to take a chest breath if you're feeling under-ventilated. With time, belly breathing will come more naturally, and you'll be able to sink comfortably into this mode of breathing whenever you want.

So, now that you've done it for a while, check in with your shoulder tension, your chest, and your neck. Check in with your overall stress level. Do you notice a change? If you do, welcome to the club! If not, I invite you to give this a few shots. Try to make the breaths slow and unforced, and relax into the routine. I can help you troubleshoot in the comments.

When do I do this? Whenever I notice that I've got excess anxiety just hanging around. Whenever I notice that I'm on edge for no good reason, or that I'm holding my shoulders up around my ears. It has become a nice "time out" trigger for me: when I ease into belly breathing, I give myself permission to worry less, to plan less; I let my brow unknit, my shoulders drop, and my jaw relax. When I'm done, I don't suddenly revert to chest breathing. I continue to keep my abdominal wall relaxed, and I go back to my day. Things usually tighten back up, but relaxation breathing is always there when I need it, and, I've noticed, has become more automatic over time.

Did this work for you?

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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Quite interesting indeed. I've never done much belly breathing because I'm always focusing on drawing breath into the sides and back of my ribcage, which is also super relaxing and reminds me to correct my posture.

      I really want to give this a try though. Sounds marvelously relaxing. Thanks for the how-to!

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 5 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      Very interesting. Thanks. I give you thumbs up for organization and instruction.