Changing the way you breathe changes your way of dealing stress

According to ADAA [1], “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year”.

Stress is something that we face everyday. It is like a snowball that unconsciously builds up over time, even from seemingly trivial events as traffic, issues with relationships, and work can easily develop into an anxiety or a depression.

This post is about my experience on how changing the way I breathe helped me recover from an illness caused by stress and also learn how to deal with any kind of stress. For the last 3 months, I have been going through one of the darkest times in my life, suffering from the sudden onset of chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CPPS). It made me super anxious and fully caught up in a catastrophic thinking that this problem might go on forever.

I was desperate to get out of this nightmare and started physical therapies as an alternative treatment to conventional medicine. While receiving treatment in there, my therapist emphasized diaphragmatic breathing as a foundation for treatment and most of the pelvic floor rehabilitation centers do teach you that in the beginning of the treatment process.

As with most people, until recently I had no idea what the heck was diaphragmatic breathing. However, the more I practiced diaphragmatic breathing, the more it my core got strengthened and the tension of my pelvic floor was released. What is more surprising is that even though you are not suffering from CPPS or any painful symptoms, simply by just changing the way you breathe all the time can give us unimaginable benefits.

Disclaimer: I am NOT a pelvic floor physical therapist or any health-related professional. I just learned from a pelvic floor therapist while I was going to pelvic floor rehab and searched on the internet to find reliable resources written by pelvic floor specialists. If you have a Primary Care Physician or a pelvic floor physical therapy centers nearby, please do consult with them depending on your medical conditions to check if changing your breathing patterns does more good than harm.

diaphragmatic breathing

To put it in simple works, it is almost the same concept as deep breathing. Whenever you were nervous or anxious in a situation, you would have heard at once ‘calm down breathe deeply’ from others.

Diaphragm is a “dome-shaped respiratory muscle” supporting the bottom of the rib cage. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly/abdominal breathing, strengthens your diaphragm as it is the most primary muscle for breathing [2].

‘Figure 1. Your core anatomy. [5]

A nice figure above shows that the diaphragm is at the top of your core and pelvic floor muscles are at the bottom of it. They surround your abdomen muscles. What is interesting is that your core muscles are closely related with muscles of respiration. Diaphragm goes down when you inhale and it gets pushed up when you exhale [3].

So, when someone asks, ‘what do you do for an exercise?’ it’s not a shame to answer that ‘I breathe’, as long as you are practicing your diaphragmatic breathing.

benefits of diaphragmatic breathing

As the basis for most of the meditation or relaxation exercises, [2] notes that diaphragmatic breathing gives you numerous benefits as below:

Diaphragmatic breathing can lower your stress levels, reduce your blood pressure, and regulate other important bodily processes. Diaphragmatic breathing has a ton of benefits. It is is known to help manage the symptoms of conditions as wide-ranging as irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety, and sleeplessness.

Among the numerous mentioned above , I am going to stress out the in what ways it dramatically changed my life:

Most people think that 6-pack abs are the core, but crunches do not strengthen your core. The core muscles are actually located internally, not visible from the outside. Diaphragmatic breathing entails core contraction and creates a stable core center [3].

Having said that, I would not recommend practice while you are doing the core exercises from the beginning. Once you get used to relaxation, you can start your progressive core strengthening by maintaining diaphragmatic breathing working on bridge or plank poses.

In the past, I used to ruminate over my worries and thoughts and my whole body could not release the tension that it had accumulated throughout the day and it was super hard to let it go.

When I kept practicing breathing with meditation before bed for months, I learned how to turn myself off at least at the time of the day when I needed to go to bed to sleep and quickly change myself into a state that I can fall asleep quickly and have a good quality of sleep.

Probably this is the biggest benefit that I would like to emphasize. There are whole bunch of theories out there, but I am going to really focus on just explaining the basic anatomy of the nervous system and the key role of breathing in controlling our nervous systems.

Autonomic systems, which you have probably all heard of. The system is divided into sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. Perceiving a crisis, your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate, and stress hormones like cortisol (‘fight-or-freeze’ response’). It is necessary to have this response given that you are in a situation that might do you harm: walking on the crosswalk with a car coming at you, your body needs to avoid that [4].

The problem is that your sympathetic nervous systems might get into an overactive state as a default one due to a constant source of stress. That’s when you fall into a vicious cycle of stress-tension-stress, which constant anxiety creates a chronic sympathetic nervous system and in turn, the system increases the anxiety level again [4].

The good news is that we can unwind that cycle by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases heart rate, respiratory rate, and obviously, cortisols. You need to tell your nervous system to change from fighting to resting by slowing your breath down [4].

The correct use of diaphragmatic breathing can help settle the autonomic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic system. This will quiet brain activities, relaxes of all the muscles and organs of the body.

These days, there are many symptoms related to autonomic systems, and conventional medicine are not doing good enough in addressing them. Practicing this breathing gives you the ability to better control that system and it will relieve your anxiety from stressful circumstances.

For folks who would still be in doubt, there are some TED talks that again show professionals encouraging why you need to change your breathing: Change Your Breath, Change Your Life | Lucas Rockwood | TEDxBarcelona

How I practiced diaphragmatic breathing

Now enough of the theory. We really need to get our butt off to change our lives through practicing consistently. We cannot completely make it ours in days, or in weeks. For me, it took weeks to start realizing that my breathing patterns have changed in a more comfortable way than I used to. You can easily search on the internet or Youtube on how to do diaphragmatic breathing. Below are the videos that I have used for practicing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgTL5G1ibIo&t=151s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMjTJf4-xz0&t=2s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xQJ2O4b5TM

[5] saids that key idea of practicing diaphragmatic breathing is a “slow, rhythmic breathing, inhaling through your nose and breathing out through your mouth to exercise belly rise, belly fall”.

Sit or lie down on the floor or your bed. Put a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly. Take a deep breath in through your nose for four to five seconds allowing your rib cage to expand out and your belly rise. Keep your upper chest, neck and shoulders relaxed as you breathe in. Think about your hand on your belly rising. Exhale for about twice as long as your inhale, opening your lips a bit and press gently on your stomach. Just open your mouth and let the air to come out.

The diagram below shows a visualization of the organs related to diaphragmatic breathing moves during inhales and exhales. Relax and expand your belly and pelvic floor while breathing in, going down at the same direction, and contract them both to push the air out, moving up to the same direction. In the beginning of training, I also felt quite a bit of pain in my lower abdomen when I exhaled. Make sure you exhale without any straining any muscles. You just simply open your mouth during the exhale and just let the air naturally disappear [5].

Figure 2 and 3. visualization of inhale and exhale [3].
  1. Practice by meditating right after waking up or before going to bed

The best way to practice diaphragmatic breathing is through MEDITATION because it is a wonderful way of focusing on your breathing by sitting or laying down on your back, quietly letting go of our body and mind. The best time to practice is in the morning or at night because it’s difficult to spend time on it when you are preoccupied with daily responsibilities. It’s better to practice as often as possible, but practicing 5 mins at least once a day in quite room with no distractions is also enough. Here is a great video on guided meditation that you can practice your diaphragmatic breathing.

Yoga could be another good option, but my personal opinion is that as long as some action is involved, it is going to be more difficult for you to focus on your breathing. The goal is to be laser-focused on your breathing and really make that diaphragmatic breathing default way of breathing with unconsciousness. However, static yoga programs that don’t require much action, for instance, restorative yoga, they should work out fine as well.

2. Practice harder especially when you feel nervous or anxious

At first, I was quite skeptical about the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing that it relieves your stress. I saw no connection between them. However, whenever I felt like stress was creeping up to take over my mind, I just started breathing and I could see instant relief because the more I focus on my breathing, the less I focus on the negative thoughts.

Yeah, it is easier said than done. Depending on the situation, it’s may not be possible to think about breathing when you are in a life-threatening emergency.

However, no matter how diligently you have been practicing daily, if you cannot step up on the game, then there is no point of practice. One of the major reasons we been practicing this is that we want to control our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to cope with nerve-wrecking situations. Let’s not be frustrated even if we failed to do it, but keep trying it to really master our systems.

3. Be patient and consistent with your practices

I want to lastly emphasize that practicing diaphragmatic breathing might not give you the benefits instantly that I have experienced and it might take a long time for you to get it in your blood and that’s why consistency is essential. Anyways, these breathing exercises are definitely low-risk and usually wouldn’t be harmful to you. The videos I shared above worked well for me, so they could be a good starting point.

However, if you feel like they do not provide the explanation detailed enough or if it’s difficult for you to follow, then you certainly should keep look for other videos and resources that work best for you. Think of your journey of changing your breathing patterns as a natural trial and error that you learn by keep experimenting what works best for you. There are tons of videos and resources out on the Internet, so as long as you have the will to learn it, you will make it at the end of the day.

Conclusion

Through changing the way I breathe for the first time in 30 years, it became much easier for me to fall asleep within 30 mins from the moment I wish to sleep and I know how to keep my composure when I am faced with stressful and anxious situations. Breathing slowly with the same pace will calm down your nervous systems. Now looking back, I am pretty sure my incorrect way of breathing partly contributed to my symptoms.

I hope this post serves as a diaphragmatic breathing 101 that really make people become more aware of the fact that it is worthwhile to assess our current way of breathing and if you have never tried it, try this out as a long-term goal for dealing with anxiety and stressful situations and for your better quality of sleep. Although it may feel weird and unnatural, this will gradually make your life much soothing and relaxed.

I hope you guys benefit from learning what diaphragmatic breathing is and how training it leads to changing your lives. There are tons of resources on the internet if you want to dive further. If you have more questions, send me an email to aspiringtechsavvy@gmail.com

References

[1] https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics

[2] https://www.healthline.com/health/diaphragmatic-breathing#steps-to-do

[3] Breathing and the Core

[4] https://yourpaceyoga.com/blog/pelvic-pain-and-the-nervous-system/

[5] http://pelvicfloorspecialist.com/treatment-for-pelvic-pain/

SWE@Wireless Origin AI. Passionate about (mental) health, energy/climate change, wellness, mindfulness, productivity, lifestyle, and self-care.