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A Basic Guide to Diaphragmatic Breathing

Our body can barely go for more than a few minutes without oxygen. But have you thought about how important proper breathing is to our health and how we can use breathing to improve how we function and feel.

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.

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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.

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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?

At first, practice this exercise 5-10 minutes before you go to bed. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend doing this exercise, to 3-4 x per day. As you become more advanced at it you may be able to implement it into your everyday life such as, driving a car, riding the tube, working at your computer, watching TV, reading a book and so forth. In this day and age the more you can signal to the body that you are relaxed and the body is not in a flight or flight response state the better.

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