DEAR DOCTOR K:
A friend recommended a technique called “breath focus” to help me deal with stress. Does this help?
Breath focus is a simple yet powerful technique that can elicit the “relaxation response,” a state of profound peace and rest. The relaxation response was popularized by my colleague at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson. It has 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 problems. The good news is that by regularly practicing relaxation techniques such as breath focus, you can reduce the negative effects of stress.
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 into your lungs. As you breathe out, the diaphragm moves back upward, pressing against your lungs and helping to expel carbon dioxide waste from your body. (I’ve put an illustration of this below.)
What happens as you breathe
Learning to breathe abdominally is the first step in practicing breath focus, a stress management technique that elicits the relaxation response. As you breathe in, your diaphragm drops, giving your lungs the room they need to expand. If you are breathing properly, you should feel your lungs fill completely and your chest and belly expand. As you exhale, your diaphragm pushes up against your lungs, which helps to expel the carbon dioxide.
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. Your abdomen will get smaller.
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, think to yourself, “Breathing in peace and calm.” And as you exhale, think, “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.
There are other ways to trigger the relaxation response besides breath focus. For example, there is a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, and one called autogenic training. None has proven superior to the other. Most of my patients (and friends) who have tried to induce the relaxation response have used breath focus.
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.
(This column is an update of one that ran originally in November 2012.)