Diaphragmatic breathing: A tutorial

Frightened cat

You know how, when you have stress in your life, your body responds? You hear bad news, and your muscles tense; something gives you a fright, and your heart beats faster; you have on ongoing worry about something, and your whole body feels tired, tense, underactive and overused.

In the same way, good feelings lead to, well, good feelings! You have a lovely chat with a good friend, and your body feels energised; you hear exciting news, and your body pumps you full of enthusiasm; you listen to calming music with friends, and your body relaxes.

It works both ways

Many don’t realise that it works both ways. What you do to your body affects your mind, or your mental state. I had an injection once, and it contained adrenaline. The result was that, for a couple of minutes, I felt anxious, nervous, afraid. The adrenaline told my body that something wrong was happening, and even though it wasn’t true, my mind reacted as though it were!

If you have a habit of walking with tense shoulders and slouched, you will feel a lack of confidence. If you eat fast, you will feel pressured. If you breathe shallowly and poorly, you will feel anxious. This will happen to you even if you have no rational or logical reason to feel that way.

It’s inevitable, because we, as humans, are animals, and animals are built like this. It’s not a fault. It’s nature. It would be strange if it didn’t happen to you!

Stress in your body

Aching back

Obviously, you will have stress in your life. That’s also the nature of life, and while some people are lucky to have little, others have a lot.

This stress reflects in your body.

So, this means that we get life stress, which creates body stress; and, due to various reasons, we might also have body stress, which creates mental stress. Each loop makes it harder to deal with the normal ups and downs of life, not to mention the unexpected or unusual events that can then throw us so much more easily.

Reducing stress

I have talked about stress management and reducing stress in greater length, so for now, I’ll summarise. It’s simple:

Reducing stress in your body will always help you to deal with stress in your mind.

There are several important ways to reduce stress in your body. Two of them are to keep yourself hydrated, and to breathe well.

Let’s talk about breathing

Breathing well might seem like a fairly trivial thing, but it’s not. Some of my clients have been surprised by how much effect such a simple change as breathing well has made to their life — not just when facing a stressful situation, but at all times of their lives. When I started to breathe well, I even found that exercising became a little easier!

Unfortunately, I have sometimes found that people who try to learn to breathe well find it hard, seemingly even impossible, to get it right.

The good news is that it’s not hard, when you know how. For this reason, I’ve written this brief tutorial to guide you to a life of better breathing.

Understanding the importance

Babies naturally know how to breathe. Not just that, but how to breathe well. If you have ever watched a baby, fast asleep on its back, you would have noticed which part of the baby’s body was moving. If you have done this, try to remember now which part that is…

The part of the baby that moves is the stomach. Not the chest, as we adults and older children so often tend to do. What happens is that the baby instinctively knows how to breathe. But, children tend to hold much of their stress in the stomach, so as you grow up and are faced with all sorts of pressures — peer pressure, bullying, schoolwork and homework, and so on — your stomach tenses. This stops you from breathing. Your body knows that when you can’t breathe with your stomach, you have just two choices: Stop breathing and die, or breathe from your chest!

And so starts a lifetime bad habit of breathing from your chest instead of your stomach!

I’ve simplified this a lot, because there is more to it than this, but the essence remains: we learn to breathe with our chest and not our stomach.

“Well, so what?” you might ask. Good question! The thing is that it’s an automatic reaction to breathe with your chest when faced with any sort of threatening situation (such as coming face to face with a sabretooth tiger, as our ancestors might have done).

On the other hand, to our ancestors, it would have been an automatic reaction to breathe with their stomach when relaxed at the end of the day, food in their stomach, the ill and injured attended to, and the camp made safe.

In other words, your brain is designed to associate threat with chest-breathing, and safety with stomach-breathing.

Our modern world

Naughty computer

You live in a modern world. Your brain is still (mostly) the same as a primitive human’s brain. Modern civilisation has come about so fast that the modern human’s brain has not had time to evolve and adapt to cope.

When you are faced with a modern stress, let’s say a computer that isn’t working properly (we’ve all been there!), this isn’t the same as being faced with a sabretooth tiger or an invading tribe.

Now, although you logically know this, the primitive part of your brain doesn’t. It registers “stress”, and responds accordingly: your breathing changes from your stomach to your chest (if you aren’t already doing this); your breathing becomes shallow and faster; your heart speeds up as your body releases adrenaline; your back tenses; and so on.

You become frustrated, angry, anxious.

This is not a rational response. It’s not logical to be angry and to shout at the computer. But we do it anyway, because the primitive part of your brain believes that there is a threat, and (it thinks) obviously it’s your computer — you must shout at it to scare it away, and get ready to fight!

You can apply all the logic in the world, but that doesn’t impress the primitive part of your brain. It wasn’t designed to be logical. Instead, it was designed to react fast and strongly to any threat. The fact that your computer isn’t going to hurt you doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is perceived as a threat, and so your brain responds as if it were dangerous.

This applies to any situation where you have a perceived, but not real, threat. It is usually the source of a disagreement turning into a fight, whether it be a fight with words or a fight with fists. Road rage belongs in this category, where people become angry and even violent at normal driving conditions or someone’s silly mistake. It is a source of a great deal of unhappiness, and it is completely unnecessary!

Turn it around

How do you turn it around? How do you stop being angry with your computer, shouting at another driver instead of being tolerant, swearing or insulting your partner instead of speaking and listening calmly?

The answer comes back to the fact that “it works both ways.” If you can calm your body, it will automatically calm your mind.

The fastest and often most effective way to do this is to fix your breathing. Learn — or, rather, relearn — what you already knew as a baby, and that’s how to breathe well.

The tutorial

Take a baseline measurement

Let’s take a look at how you breathe right now.

  1. Stand in front of a mirror. Look at that person in the mirror; pretend that he or she isn’t you, but someone who just happens to look like you and dress like you.
  2. Watch that person closely…
  3. … and take a deep breath in.
  4. Now, how did you know that that person took a deep breath? What did you see that gave you the clues? You might have noticed the stomach moving in; the chest moving out; the shoulders moving up; or something else happening.
  5. If you’re not quite sure of the answers, repeat steps 2–4 until you are clear in your mind.

If your shoulders didn’t move; your chest didn’t move (or maybe a little near the end of the breath); and your stomach moved out; then you might already know how to breathe well. Some people have already learned to breathe well, for example if you’ve been taught singing, acting, any of certain musical instruments, martial arts, and some others.

Breathe diaphragmatically

Still standing in front of the mirror, do the following.

  1. Place your hand on your stomach so that you can feel what it is doing.
  2. Relax your shoulders. Spend a little time to ensure that they are as relaxed as you can get them.
  3. Breathe out.
    1. Empty your lungs as far as you possibly can.
    2. When you think that you’re completely empty, push out more air by pushing your stomach in (not out). Your stomach must grow smaller as you breathe out.
    3. Force the last bit of air out with a little extra two or three pushes of the stomach. (Don’t worry, you won’t actually completely empty your lungs. You will always have a little air left.)
  4. Now, relax both your chest and stomach. You will find that your stomach will grow (move out) a bit, and you will automatically breathe in without even trying.
  5. Keep your shoulders and chest relaxed, and push your stomach out. You should find that you continue to breathe in. Keep going to breathe in as much air as you can without tensing your shoulders or moving your chest.
  6. You can breathe in a last bit of air by expanding your chest — but still, keep your shoulders relaxed. Your shoulders should not move!
  7. Go back to step 3 and repeat. Continue to repeat this several times until you “get” it.

As you do this exercise, it’s helpful to imagine (pretend) that your stomach is actually a balloon. When you breathe in, your balloon (stomach) has to grow bigger. When you breathe out, your balloon (stomach) has to shrink.

Breathe in = stomach out
Breathe out = stomach in

If you do this for long enough, you might start to feel lightheaded. As one of my trainers said, “This is your body’s way of saying, Thank you!

Of course, you won’t breathe this deeply all the time. But you should continue to breathe diaphragmatically all the time, using your stomach, and not your chest or your shoulders. Even when you exercise (e.g. play sport), breathe like this, although you will need to use your chest as in step 6 above.

Some benefits of good breathing

Good breathing brings with it many benefits.

  • It’s good for your stomach muscles.
  • It helps your heart.
  • It’s a more efficient use of your lungs, so you breathe fewer times per minute, but more deeply. This is especially useful when exercising, and lets you recover faster afterwards.
  • It calms your mind. If you watch a martial arts expert surrounded by attackers, that person won’t panic. Instead, the expert goes very calm (the opposite of what you might think) and breathes diaphragmatically. A calm mind can think and react faster and more intelligently than a panicked mind.
  • It calms your emotions if you’re feeling stressed.
  • It improves your communication skills, and helps you to listen better.
  • It reduces the chances of responding irrationally or angrily to normal everyday problems. I had one client come to me with road rage, and all that he had to do was to learn to breathe like this while driving.
  • If you feel always in a hurry and under pressure, this type of breathing can alleviate or even eliminate those emotions.

Make it a habit

Practice every day. Ask yourself every time you walk through a doorway, “How am I breathing?” Every time you change gear (if you drive), every time you feel the sharp tension of some stressful situation, every time you worry about something… remind yourself to breathe diaphragmatically.

If someone talks sharply or rudely to you, you have a choice: react, feel bad, make things worse… or stop, breathe deeply, take control of the situation, approach it with curiosity (what has made this person feel so bad?), and make it work for everyone including you.

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