What if I told you there was a simple mind-body technique that could help keep you calm, could be done anywhere, and requires no equipment, supplements or apps? It’s called diaphragmatic breathing, and it’s been shown to be more powerful at controlling the breath, and also more relaxing, compared to “mouth breathing.”
Breathing with help from your diaphragm muscle allows you to take deeper inhales, pulling more air into the lungs, and full exhales at a slower pace. This may lead to benefits such as improved functioning of the respiratory system, decreased muscle tension, increased endurance and help managing anxiety.
What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing is a type of deep breathing technique that uses the diaphragm, a large, dome-shaped muscle located at base of the chest and lungs that helps to control the breath.
Some people refer to this type of breathing as “ribcage breathing,” since it causes your lower torso to expand and then relax as air moves in and out of the lungs. While your belly moves during this type of breathing, your chest does not rise.
You breath in through the nose as opposed to the mouth.
Your abdominal/core muscles help move the diaphragm, so they are also involved in this breathing technique. That’s one reason why core exercises are emphasized in practices such as yoga, since they can help strengthen your diaphragm and allow you to fully breathe in and then to empty your lungs.
While diaphragmatic breathing exercises are associated with benefits like a reduction in anxiety, too much “neck and chest breathing” throughout the day can have opposite effects, especially when your breathing rate increases while you’re exercising. Using the neck and chest muscles (considered ancillary muscles that can fatigue more easily) to control the breath can result in shallow breathing and a weakened diaphragm muscle.
Research tells us that diaphragmatic breathing benefits can include the following:
1. Slows Your Breathing Rate and Uses Less Energy
As you get accustomed to using and strengthening the diaphragm while breathing, you actually use less energy and tend to breathe at a slower rate. This can result in less oxygen demand and greater stamina compared to when you rely on shallow neck/chest breathing.
The problem with being a “chest breather” (or mouth breather) is that it can cause you to feel fatigued more quickly when your breathing rate increases. The neck and chest can tire more easily when overused, such as if you constantly rely on them while breathing throughout the day.
Interestingly, for athletes and those who are active, deep breathing can also improve performance in other areas, such as by enhancing balance and flexibility in the torso and improving circulation, concentration and motivation. It can also potentially reduce oxidative stress and improve antioxidant defenses in athletes after exhaustive exercise.
2. Can Help Manage Stress and Anxiety
Deep belly breathing is also referred to as eupnea in medical literature. It’s seen across many species of mammals, including humans, when they are in a state of relaxation and restoration.
Deep breathing exercises have been shown in studies to have natural anxiety-reducing effects, since they help counteract the body’s “fight or flight” response that kicks in when you feel stressed or scared.
Some research has shown that practicing slow, controlled breathwork can help mitigate symptoms tied to chronic stress and anxiety — such as muscular tension and chronic pain, trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, indigestion, headaches, anger, and inability to concentrate.
Breathing exercises are also now recommended for people with panic attacks and PTSD symptoms since they can decrease physiological symptoms associated with fear, such as a racing heart, confusion and shallow, fast breathing. Some of these benefits seem to be due to improved heart rate variability, changes in certain brain waves and autonomic changes that take place when a relaxation response is provoked.
Recently, a 2017 study that investigated the effects of diaphragmatic breathing on cognition and cortisol responses to stress found that regularly practicing can decrease cortisol output, improve attention, decrease exhaustion, and contribute to emotional balance and social adaptation.
3. Can Help Improve Respiratory Function and COPD
People who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) tend to have a hard time taking deep breaths because this illness prevents the diaphragm from moving as it normally does. Diaphragmatic breathing exercises are recommended by experts for people with COPD because studies show they can improve a variety of factors that control respiratory/pulmonary function:
- This technique may improve cardiorespiratory fitness and stamina and help improve exercise capacity.
- It can help strengthen and lengthen respiratory muscles, allowing for more stretch/flexibility in tissues that control the lungs and greater chest expansion.
- It also improves ventilation efficiency, slows breathing, quiets the sound of breathing and reduces coughing due improved airway clearance.
- It may also be beneficial for controlling asthma symptoms and other respiratory issues for many of the same reasons.
4. May Improve Digestion
If you struggle with a “nervous stomach” or IBS symptoms (including frequent diarrhea or constipation), breathing exercises may be able to help.
As University of Michigan Medicine explains, “Deliberately paying attention to each breath serves to distract and quiet the mind.” Deep breathing coupled with other natural stress relievers like journaling, meditating and exercising are all recommended for GI patients because they can improve the gut-brain connection and reduce physical reactions to stress.
“Activating the diaphragm creates a gentle massaging action felt by internal organs like the intestines and stomach, which can reduce abdominal pain, urgency, bloating and constipation.”
How do you learn to breathe through your diaphragm? Follow these instructions:
- If possible, practice at first while laying down on your back with your knees bent.
- Put one hand on your chest and the other below your ribcage, which allows you to feel your diaphragm as it moves with the breath.
- Breathe in through your nose slowly, counting up to 10 if possible as you inhale. You should feel the hand on your rib cage move as your diaphragm expands, but the hand on your chest should stay still.
- Tighten your stomach muscles as you exhale through your mouth, and let the diaphragm relax. Try to fully breathe out, counting up to 10 if possible before inhaling again.
As you get used to breathing in this way, it should take less deliberate effort. While you’re working on the right technique, practice the exercise above for about five to 10 minutes at a time, ideally several times per day (such as in bed in the morning and again at night, and/or before meditating or exercising).
Diaphragmatic Breathing in Yoga
What is the difference between belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing? Although most people use these terms interchangeably, a distinction is made in some yoga and meditation practices.
According to an article published by Yoga Journal, to experience diaphragmatic rib cage breathing, you should lie down, and as you begin to inhale, then subtly tighten your front abdominal muscles just enough to prevent your belly from rising.
Continue inhaling without allowing your belly to rise or fall, which makes it different than belly breathing. Your diaphragm will draw your lower ribs up and apart.
On exhalation keep your abdomen completely level as you allow your ribs to return to their starting position.
How It Works
The rib cage, abdomen and diaphragm all work together to help you breathe efficiently.
The diaphragm is the divider between the upper and lower sections of your torso. It’s made of muscle and tendon that serves as both the ceiling of the abdominal cavity and the floor of the thoracic cavity.
When practicing diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm contracts and flattens when you breathe in (inhale), then relaxes when you breathe out (exhale). Inhaling into your diaphragm is described as having a “vacuum effect” since it pulls air into the lungs.
Another way to describe this: The diaphragm lifts and spreads the ribs when you inhale so the lungs can fully expand, allowing more air to enter the lungs.
The act of deep, slow breathing sends signals to your nervous system that it’s OK to relax. It helps stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which brings you back to homeostasis and allows levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, to return to baseline.
This makes you feel calm and allows you to recover from stressful events.
Risks and Side Effects
Diaphragmatic breathing exercises are usually very safe for most people, but they can take some getting used to. Start by practicing breathing exercises at a slow pace while in a relaxed mood, rather than when vigorously exercising.
Take it slow at first if you have any health condition that affects your heart and lungs, such as asthma or low blood pressure.
If you struggle with severe forms of anxiety, it’s best to work with a trained therapist in order to combine breathing techniques with other treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or exposure therapy.
Tips and Specialists Who Can Help
Still not sure how to do “deep stomach breathing,” as opposed to shallow chest breathing? Try these tips and variations recommended by breathing specialists:
- Practice while sitting comfortably in a chair if laying down feels uncomfortable. With your knees bent and head and neck relaxed, follow the same instructions as above.
- Place a yoga block, blanket or book over your diaphragm if it helps you feel whether or not you’re breathing into the right space.
- Try different variations of this breathing exercise to find which one provides you the most relief, such as pausing at the top of the inhale and holding for five to 10 seconds before exhaling.
- You can also combine diaphragmatic breathing with “pursed-lips breathing” and progressive muscle relaxation for greater effects.
A great way to learn how to effectively do this breathing technique is to attend a class for workshop focused on Pranayama Yoga, Zen meditation, transcendental meditation or other meditation practices. You can also work with a chiropractor or physical therapist who can help to ensure that you’re using the right muscles to control your breath.
- Diaphragmatic breathing is a deep breathing technique that involves using the diaphragm, a large muscle located at the base of the lungs, to control the breath.
- Research suggests that diaphragmatic breathing benefits can include reduced anxiety/stress, lowered blood pressure and muscle tension, improved respiratory function, and enhanced physical performance and endurance.
- How can you practice diaphragmatic breathing exercises? Start by laying down with knees bent and placing your hands over your rib cage and chest; work on keeping your chest still and breathing into the hand on your ribcage. Inhale through the nose for a count of 10 if possible, then slowly exhale through the mouth.
- For even stronger effects, consider combining it with meditation, yoga, pursed lip breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.