Do you ever find it hard to “take a deep breath?”
I think it’s kind of funny that our go-to advice about breathing and relaxation is a little bit backwards.
Don’t get me wrong — deep breathing is REALLY good for you. In fact, it’s been linked to all sorts of wonderful benefits, including:
- increasing overall relaxation
- lowering your heart rate
- reducing muscle tension
- improving the blood’s oxygen supply (reducing your “oxygen hunger”)
- increasing levels of so-called “happy chemicals” in your brain
- lowering your blood pressure
- reducing metabolic demands on your body (so your heart, and everything else, don’t have to work so hard)
- reducing electrical conductivity of your skin (associated with less nervousness/greater relaxation)
So yes, deep breathing is really good for you.
What is Deep Breathing?
Most adults breathe about 12-15 times per minute. Deep breathing is significantly slower, about 5-6 breaths — or fewer — each minute.
So What’s the Secret to Taking a Deep Breath?
Let me explain why the “take a deep breath” advice is a bit backwards.
You know how they tell you to not keep charging your cell phone once it hits 100% battery? Apparently, keeping it plugged in when it’s fully charged actually stresses out the battery (and that’s the tech guys’ term, not mine!) Obviously, we cannot charge a full battery.
Well, your lungs are the same way — if you’re breathing shallowly all day, taking quick breaths in and out, it’s like you’re plugging in your phone every time it hits 93% battery life. If a deep inhale is what recharges your lungs, you need to let the air that’s already there drain out first!
So the secret to taking a deep breath in?
TAKE A DEEP BREATH OUT!
A balloon is a helpful analogy here, too — if the balloon is full, no deep breathing on your part is going to make it bigger. Let the balloon deflate, and then you can go to town blowing it back up again.
I learned how the phrase “take a deep breath” could backfire when I would tell my students to “take a deep breath.” When I did, what happened in my classroom sounded more like a collective hyperventilation session than deep breathing. With their lungs already full from shallow breathing, my instruction only made their breathing more dysregulated.
So Is There a Secret to a Deep Breath Out?
You’ve probably heard of belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. That’s basically what we mean by “deep breathing,” which is actually the way we’re supposed to breathe.
But if you put your hand on your belly right now as you breathe (go ahead, do it…. I’ll wait…), you may not notice your hand moving much. As adults, we tend to breathe primarily in our chest, which means shallow breathing (and, interestingly enough, it’s a type of breathing associated with feeling sad).
Sometimes we even do what’s called paradoxical breathing, when we pull the diaphragm up and constrict our bodies on the inhale, instead of releasing the diaphragm downwards on the inhale to allow sufficient air to fill the lungs.
I think one reason why we tend to NOT belly breathe is due to self-consciousness — I mean, when we fully belly breathe, we let it ALL hang out and let the belly get really big and soft. After years of sucking in our guts, it’s hard to just let it go.
But have you ever watched a baby breathe? They breathe with their whole body, the way we’re supposed to, and they don’t care about their muffin tops or anything. THAT’s how you should try breathing today!
Belly Breathing Exercise
To get a sense of what this feels like, lie down on the floor. Place your hands on your belly, and focus on feeling your hands rise as you breathe in. Don’t worry about making this first breath deep — remember, the secret is on the exhale.
As you exhale, really concentrate on engaging the diaphragm, imagining squeezing all that air out of the lungs. A helpful way to visualize this is to imagine pulling your belly button to your spine (it won’t actually happen, but that’s the sensation you want to evoke).
When I teach this practice to kids, I have them put a stuffed animal on their belly, and I tell them to try to give this animal the slowest possible roller-coaster ride they can. So, if you’re into that kind of thing, you could give that a try.
Additional Benefits of Deep Belly Breathing
Want to learn something cool about your breath? Go ahead and find your pulse. (Seriously, do it).
You don’t need to actually count your pulse; just try to get a subjective feel of its rhythm. Now breathe in…. and out…. and in…. and out…. and continue breathing, just noticing any changes in your pulse as you breathe.
Did you notice anything?
It’s subtle, but you SHOULD notice that when you breathe in, your heart rate speeds up a bit, and when you breathe out, it slows down a bit. You don’t actually want a completely steady, metronome-like heart rate.
Why does this happen? Well, when you breathe in, you engage the sympathetic nervous system (the “activating,” or so-called “fight or flight” branch of the nervous system), and your heart rate increases. When you breathe out, you engage the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxing, or so-called “rest and digest” branch), and your heart rate decreases.
And since you breathe several times a minute, you should notice this fluctuation (or heart rate variability, abbreviated HRV) quite frequently. Your HRV is actually a pretty accurate measure of the health of your nervous system, and therefore your stress resiliency.
What’s really cool about this is that HRV is a measurement similar to something like your cholesterol level — it’s a one-time biometric value that you can influence through your actions and your lifestyle! The more you practice deep belly breathing, especially bringing your attention to the exhale, the more you improve your stress-hardiness.
So the Next Time Someone Tells You to Take a Deep Breath…
Focus on your EXHALE, not the inhale.
The more attention you bring to the exhale each time you breathe, the more relaxing and nourishing the breath feels, and the more relaxed and nourished YOU feel.
Who knew we had this breathing thing all backwards?