A Basic Guide to Diaphragmatic Breathing

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Diaphragmatic breathing, often referred to as deep breathing, plays a pivotal role in supporting and enhancing the functionality of our nervous system. This technique, which involves deep, rhythmic breaths from the diaphragm, encourages full oxygen exchange — the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not only does this breathing method positively affect our physiological state, but it also has profound implications for our mental and emotional well-being.

The essence of diaphragmatic breathing lies in its ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our autonomic nervous system responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ responses, in contrast to the ‘fight or flight’ responses triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. Through the simple act of altering our breathing pattern, we can directly influence our stress levels, reduce blood pressure, and promote a state of calmness and relaxation.

In a world where stress and anxiety are prevalent, understanding and practising diaphragmatic breathing can be a powerful tool in managing our day-to-day health. It offers an accessible and natural method to support our nervous system, improve our respiratory efficiency, and enhance our overall health and longevity. This article provides a guide for why and how to use diaphragmatic breathing.

Children Give Clues

Have you ever looked at the difference between a child breathing and most of the adult population.

A child gives clues on how we should be breathing. If you look closely you will notice their stomach move in and out as they breathe. As the child breathes in the diaphragm contracts and pulls down, essentially expanding the lungs and allowing us to suck in oxygen.

Compare that to most adults who tend to have inverted breathing patterns.

What is an inverted breathing pattern?

Inverted breathing patterns are when we no longer use the diaphragm correctly and instead use the accessory muscles to breath. The give away is to see primarily just the chest elevate as we breath in and little or no movement in the stomach. This is totally natural when we are in a stressed state such as being frightened, exercising or experiencing an acute stress such as an accident.

The trouble is most people live in that stress response state, known as the fight or flight response. Over time this can lead to ongoing inverted breathing patterns even when not stressed.

Why should you care?

  1. Changes in the recruitment of muscles for breathing can lead to chronically tight neck and chest muscles and may even be a contributor to bad posture like rounded shoulders and forward head posture.
  2. The diaphragm is also crucial for the stabilisation of the lower spine. Meaning that poor diaphragmatic use may be a contributor to low back and pelvic dysfunctions. This may also lead to muscle strains elsewhere in the body due to a loss of structure balance.
  3. The body thinks it is stressed out. Breathing with an inverted breathing pattern the majority of the time, is like telling the body you are almost constantly stressed. This may impact the nervous system, shifting it into a more sympathetic state, which in turn may further compound stress hormone production and lower hormones associated with growth, repair, recovery etc.
  4. There is a strong link between our gut and our brain, and when we are stressed out this can have numerous negative consequences to how our gut functions and ultimately how well we absorb our food and how well our body is likely to function. Shifts in gut flora, drops in digestive acids and enzymes are not uncommon during a stress response state. By telling the body you are relaxed by performing diaphragmatic breathing you may well be able to help improve gut function indirectly.

How to perform correct diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is intended to help you use the diaphragm correctly while breathing to:

  • Strengthen the diaphragm
  • Decrease the work of breathing by slowing your breathing rate
  • Use less effort and energy to breathe

Diaphragmatic breathing technique

1. Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent and your head supported. You can use a pillow under your knees to support your legs. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.

2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain still.


3. As you exhale let you stomach fall back towards the spine. Start by counting an in breath for 3 seconds and out breath for 3 seconds.


To perform this exercise while sitting in a chair:

1. Sit comfortably, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head and neck relaxed.

2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.

3. As you exhale, gently bring the abdominals back towards the spine. The hand on your upper chest should remain still.

Note: You may notice an increased effort will be needed to use the diaphragm correctly. At first, you’ll probably get tired while doing this exercise. But keep at it, because with continued practice, diaphragmatic breathing will become easy and automatic.

How often should I practice?

Try and tag your breathing practice to a habit you already have. This will help form it as a new habit. Think of your commute, or before a meal or brushing your teeth, getting out of bed. These are all things we commonly do, so become good triggers to remind you to practice. I’d typically recommend doing smaller amounts multiple times as day rather than reduced frequency and longer duration, hence tagging it to other daily habits.

Try Box Breathing

Box breathing, also known as the 4-4-4-4 technique, is a simple yet powerful breathing method designed to reduce stress and improve concentration. This technique involves four key steps: inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding again, each for a count of four seconds. The process starts with a deep, slow breath in through the nose for four seconds, followed by holding the breath for another four seconds. Then, a controlled exhale through the mouth for four seconds is performed, and finally, the breath is held again for four seconds before the next cycle begins.

This structured pattern of breathing helps to regulate the nervous system, promoting a sense of calm and balance. By focusing on the breath and counting during each step, the mind is also encouraged to stay present, reducing distractions and fostering a meditative state. Box breathing is particularly beneficial in high-stress environments, aiding individuals in regaining control over their stress response and enhancing mental clarity. Its simplicity and accessibility make it an ideal technique for anyone looking to manage stress, improve focus, and cultivate a deeper sense of relaxation in their daily life.

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