How do breathing exercises work to relieve stress?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m under a lot of stress from my job. I’ve heard that a technique called “breath focus” might help. Can you tell me more about this?

DEAR READER:

Stress reduction techniques definitely can reduce your level of stress. The best-known technique is the “relaxation response” first popularized by my colleague here at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson. These techniques have given all of us a weapon against stress.

That’s valuable because stress can take a toll on body and mind. Over time, stress can contribute to high blood pressure, depression, diabetes and other health concerns. The good news is that by regularly practicing relaxation techniques such as breath focus, you can reduce the negative effects of stress.

Breath focus is a simple yet powerful technique that can elicit the relaxation response, a state of profound peace and rest. Breath focus depends on learning to breathe deeply and properly.

When you breathe in, the muscles between your ribs pull them outward, which expands your lungs and causes your diaphragm to move downward. The diaphragm is a strong sheet of muscle that divides the chest from the abdomen. When it drops downward, pressing against abdominal organs, this also expands your lungs and sucks air through your mouth and nose and into the lungs. As you breathe out, the diaphragm presses back upward against your lungs, helping to expel carbon dioxide. (See the illustration below.)

Illustration: What happens as you breathe

 

Deep abdominal breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.

In order to practice breath focus, you must first learn proper diaphragmatic breathing. Sit or lie down in a quiet, comfortable place. Close your eyes to remove visual distractions. Relax your abdominal muscles. Take a slow, deep breath. The air coming in through your nose should move downward into your lower belly. That, in turn, should cause your abdomen to expand. You should feel it. Now breathe out through your mouth.

Once you’re comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing, move on to breath focus. As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, combine your breathing with helpful imagery and a focus phrase to help you relax. Imagine that the air you breathe in washes peace and calm into your body. Imagine that the air leaving your body carries tension and anxiety away.

As you inhale, say to yourself, “Breathing in peace and calm.” And as you exhale, say, “Breathing out tension and anxiety.” Start by doing 10 minutes of breath focus. Gradually work up to sessions that are about 15 to 20 minutes long.

Does this sound a little weird, a little loosey-goosey? Maybe it does, but it sure helps some of my patients and friends. And it’s simple; there’s no risk and it’s free. We can’t say that about tranquilizer medicines.