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Preventive Health, Stress

Stressed? Just Breathe

Stressed? Overwhelmed?

If there is one change you could make, just one thing you could do to help with stress, I believe it’s this: work on breathing.

Maybe this sounds ridiculous. Of course we all breathe. All day, and all night. There are systems in place to ensure that we breathe without thinking about it (this is a good thing; sometimes I get so busy I swear if I had to remember to breathe I’d be in big trouble). But it’s not just about breathing or not breathing…it’s more about the quality of that breathing.

Breathing exercises and breath awareness are a core part of many healthy practices, like yoga and meditation. This is no coincidence. Dr. Andrew Weil calls breathing “the master key to self-healing”.  Breathing exercises have been found to be effective for: anxiety disorders, panic attacks, depression, headaches, and fatigue. To name a few.

So how do you seize the power of this simple tool?

There are many ways to do it, and myriad breathing exercises, but the basis is with abdominal breathing.

Most of us, during the day, breathe using “chest breathing”. This is a shallow, relatively less effective way of breathing, that merely expands the rib cage to get air in. When something stressful happens, our breathing becomes even more shallow, and often irregular. Our shoulders rise to help pull air into the upper parts of our lungs, but it’s a weak effort (and leads to shoulder and neck tension, besides).

The opposite of all that is abdominal, or diaphragmatic breathing. Abdominal breathing uses the diaphragm (a large, sheetlike muscle at the base of our lungs) to fills our lungs more deeply, more fully. First, you need to learn how to do it. Follow these steps:

  • Lie down on your back.
  • Place one hand on flat on your stomach, the other on your chest.
  • Breathe in through your nose, and allow your abdomen to rise under your hand. Try to keep the hand on your chest still.
  • Exhale fully, allowing your abdomen to sink naturally back down.

And that’s all there is to it!

Here’s a decent Wikipedia article with more info on abdominal breathing, if you’re curious.

Once you’re clear on how to breathe using your diaphragm, you can practice abdominal breathing in any posture, sitting or standing. Try to spend time abdominal breathing every day, twice daily at least. Then, use any little irritation during your day (long line-up at Starbucks, say) as a trigger to practice. Notice the amazing, calming, warming effect. Abdominal breathing is the simplest and quickest way of accessing the relaxation response. Next time you’re in a stressful situation, your first step is to take three nice, slow abdominal breaths. You’ll be surprised at how effective this one small intervention can be. 

Breathing. Does a body good.

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About Kim Foster

Dr. Kim Foster is a writer, family doctor, and mom.

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Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat disease. It is not a substitute for seeking medical advice or counseling. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. You should seek medical attention before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health program described on this website.
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