While inhaling and exhaling is something we're born doing, it's often something we take for granted. But the simple act of breathing can have a significant effect on our day-to-day stress levels.
There are many patterns to consider when it comes to breath exercises — like box breathing, for example. Here, we'll break down the benefits of this practice and lay out a step-by-step guide so you can try it yourself.
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What Is Belly Breathing?
Belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is an efficient and calming way to breathe. When a baby first arrives in the world, their natural, innate instinct is to breathe through their belly. When you watch their tiny tummies rise and fall, that's precisely what they are doing, without thinking twice about it.
"As adults, the more stressed we get, we tend only to breathe partially, and we tend not to use all the lobes of the lungs when we breathe," Annelies Richmond, a breathing expert and the director of teaching training at The Art of Living Retreat Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Belly breathing can restore us to the natural breath we had as a baby, where all five lobes of the lungs are being utilized."
When we do belly breathing, the vagus nerve gets stimulated, which activates our relaxation response. It puts our nervous system into parasympathetic mode, Richmond explains. As the heart rate slows, stress lowers naturally.
4 Benefits of Belly Breathing
With overpacked schedules and demands from every direction of our lives, sometimes it can feel impossible to find a moment to breathe. If you do pause to focus on your inhale and exhale, you'll see essential differences in the way you carry yourself and in your mental energy, Richmond says.
Some benefits of belly breathing in particular include:
1. It Can Ease Asthma Symptoms
When you have shortness of breath, belly breathing can help by slowing down your breathing and calming you down, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).
Richmond explains those with asthma tend to try to breathe from their chest and shoulders, which isn't a natural state of breathing and can actually make it more difficult. Belly breathing, on the other hand, allows us to use our diaphragm correctly.
2. It May Help Support Your Immune System
When we take a deep breath in, we fill our lungs with oxygen and prompt our circulatory system to move freely. This act alone can boost our immune system, Richmond says.
"Belly breathing can help us resist any sickness that comes our way, or help to recover from it," she says.
Research at least shows a connection. In a small May 2014 study in PNAS, half the participants were schooled in meditation and breathing for two weeks. Researchers then exposed everyone to a toxin that caused flu-like symptoms. Those who participated in the breathing class were less likely to show symptoms.
The reason may lie in the fact that stress suppresses the immune system, and deep breathing techniques like belly breathing can help lower stress levels, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
3. It Might Help With COPD
Those who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, struggle to catch their breath, cough frequently and produce more mucus. One of the best at-home treatments for COPD symptoms is belly breathing, Richmond says, because it can reduce stress on the body.
Belly breathing calms the nerves and encourages deep breathing from the diaphragm, which can reduce wheezing and discomfort, according to the ALA.
4. It Can Temper Anxiety
If you're someone who has panic attacks, you likely have felt like you're suffocating or drowning, even if you're nowhere near water.
"Your breathing feels labored and you may strain to take a deep breath," Richmond says. "The harder you try, often the worse it feels."
Most of the time, someone will try and help you by instructing you to take a big, deep breath. But because you're straining, it doesn't help.
What can make a difference is belly breathing since it takes "flight or fight" mode and turns it into "rest and digest" mode instead by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
"This cannot be done easily by thinking. But it can be done very effortlessly by consciously changing the way we breathe," Richmond says. "Our breath is our conscious and unconscious gateway into our nervous system."
How to Do Belly Breathing
Ready to give it a go? Here, Richmond explains how to breathe from your belly:
- Sit with your back straight, shoulders relaxed and eyes closed. If you can't find a comfortable, upright position, Richmond says you can lie flat on your back, too.
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose. As you do this, pay attention to your stomach as it expands. It should push against your hand.
- Then, breathe out through your nose. You will notice your stomach deflates and relaxes.
- As you keep your chest relaxed, try to be more conscious of your belly going up and down. The goal is to expand your belly like a balloon and then gently release it.
Aim to practice the above for 3 to 5 minutes, twice a day — although you may find even less than that still helps.
At first, you may find your mind wandering. Try to focus only on your stomach and how it feels for your lungs to expand. The more you practice belly breathing, the more it will become your natural breathing in your everyday life, Richmond says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.