Have you ever been so stressed or anxious to the point where someone else notices and tells you to “just breathe.” Until I started studying the mechanisms of breathing, I never quite understood how a simple inhalation and exhalation would solve my existential problems – but then again, sometimes the answer to our problems is right under our noses, and in this case, it quite literally goes through our nose. Coming back from sipping piña coladas under the sun to cracking down on physics problems can be stressful. School is back in session, but that doesn’t mean that stress and anxiety must come back too.
Before diving into the techniques of the breathing, here’s the science behind why breathing makes such a difference in our physiological state:
There are two main types of breathing patterns: thoracic (chest) breathing and diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing. When people get stressed or anxious, they tend to breathe rapidly and shallowly through the chest. Chest breathing disrupts the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body, thus causing an increased heart rate, muscle tension, headaches, and other painful sensations. Many chronic pains are caused by respiratory issues. It is important to breathe using your diaphragm because the chest muscles aren’t built for routine respiration, so they are more prone to wear out and get tired. Simply put, the diaphragm is the best muscle for breathing.
Breathing through the diaphragm is also known as “belly breathing” because when you breathe using your diaphragm, you should feel your belly contracting and expanding. Doing diaphragmatic breathing exercises can help strengthen the diaphragm and decrease oxygen demand. To perform the breathing exercise:
Lie on a flat surface or in bed with your head and knees supported by a pillow or other soft object.
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. (This is to feel the diaphragm moving up and down.)
Breathe in slowly through your nose. (Your hand should rise with your belly.)
Tighten stomach muscles and exhale through pursed lips. (Your lips should be pursed to help slow your pace of breathing.)
Try to practice this exercise around three times a day for about five minutes. Eventually, after more practice or once you get comfortable with the task, you can do this sitting in a chair. This exercise may seem tedious or tiring at first, but with continued execution, diaphragmatic breathing will become automatic. What’s great is you can do this exercise anywhere: in an Uber, during a long lecture, or while drowning in work in the Mugar basement. It’s the little habits that end up making the biggest differences in life. Try taking a little time out of your day to just breathe, and you’ll find a big change in your overall health.