Diaphragmatic Breathing During COVID-19

Diaphragmatic breathing activates the body’s relaxation system, and is a simple way to take a moment to check-in with yourself. Read the latest article from Well-being Program Director Debrah Lee, about the benefits of belly breathing.

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There are many different reactions you may be having during this stressful and uncertain period. One of the frustrating realities of human cognition is that we not only react to the world around us, but we also have internal reactions to our reactions. That supplementary reaction often looks and sounds like judgment. Exercising self-compassion in response to that judgment is a practice – it grows with repetition and patience. Feeling tired, frustrated, and disappointed doesn’t mean that you aren’t coping “well,” and feeling hopeful or optimistic doesn’t mean that you are “naïve.” It means that you are paying attention to your thoughts and feelings.  

How many of you have been told to take a deep breath when you are stressed? Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is a strategy that many of you may be familiar with and it is often one of the first skills recommended in stress management. Our breath is with us wherever we go, and it is intertwined with the body’s stress response system. When our worries and feelings become overwhelming, belly breathing is a strategy that can help us build space to gain awareness.

This doesn’t mean that belly breathing resolves stressors. I have certainly had my share of less than gracious thoughts arise when someone recommends that I take a deep breath in a very stressful moment. However, I have found that understanding how belly breathing works has also helped me to prioritize it as a regular practice.


How Does It Work?

Diaphragmatic breathing activates the body’s relaxation system. The body’s autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling the bodily functions that we don’t consciously direct – like breathing, digestion, and our heartbeat. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the fight, flight, freeze or stress response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is also referred to as the “rest and digest” or relaxation system. Unlike the other functions controlled by the autonomic nervous system, breathing is something that we can consciously direct. Diaphragmatic breathing is one way to use our body to send a signal to our brain to turn on the body’s relaxation system.

It does this by causing the lungs to push on the diaphragmatic wall, which in turn pushes down on the abdominal cavity. As the abdomen is squeezed, pressure is put on the spine and on the vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve, running all the way down from the brain stem and spine. When pressed on, the vagus nerve quiets down and turns on the body’s relaxation system.

There are few different ways to see if you are breathing deeply from the belly or shallowly from your chest:

  • Sit in a chair in an upright but comfortable posture.

  • Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach (below the rib cage and above the navel).

  • Take a few normal breaths and observe which hand is moving.

  • If both your hands are moving, you are breathing from your chest. If your bottom hand is moving, then you are breathing from your belly.



When Should You Try Belly Breathing?

  • Try practicing diaphragmatic breathing for one minute – three times a day.

  • If you notice that you are feeling tense or stressed, do a minute of belly breathing right then.

  • Practice this while standing up or lying down. When lying down, you can place a tissue box on your stomach to help you observe the rise and fall of you belly with each inhale and exhale.

  • Cue-controlled relaxation is a strategy that harnesses belly breathing by practicing two belly breaths before engaging with a predictable, routine stressors (e.g. before checking your e-mail, before responding to someone on the phone, before engaging with your angry child, etc.)


Fun for the Kids Too!

If you have kids, they can practice belly breathing with you! Sesame Street has a cute video about it for younger children called "Belly Breathe".



Reference: The Mindfulness Toolbox by Donald Altman, MA, LPC

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