Fast, shallow breathing is one of the best indicators or warning signs of stress. By consciously increasing our awareness about breathing and by practising breathing exercises it's possible to improve our sense of well-being and decrease our level of stress.
There are two types of breathing: chest breathing and abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing.
Deep abdominal breathing - rather than shallow chest breathing - is the one we're interested in.
Why abdominal breathing helps relieve stress
It is in itself relaxing compared to the ‘emergency mode’ breathing of the upper chest, which is an integral part of ‘fight or flight’ response to a stressful situation.
It is typical of the regenerating processes such as when you are asleep, digesting food or the body is at peace.
Abdominal breathing exercises
- Find a quiet spot and stand up straight (head, neck and spine in a straight line) with your feet shoulder width apart. Close your eyes.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose using what feels like your stomach: your stomach will rise but your chest shouldn't - this is key.
- Allow yourself a little time to get into a regular rhythm.
- Slow down your breathing out, then be conscious of a comfortable pause before allowing your breaths in to follow smoothly and easily. If any distractions, thoughts or worries come into your mind, allow them to come, then allow them to go, and bring your attention back to your breathing.
- When you are ready to end this exercise, take a few deeper breaths in. Bring some feeling back into your fingers and toes by wiggling them. Open your eyes.
(When I do this myself in a quiet corner of the gym, I like to do it with earphones in but music off - that way I can really concentrate on my breathing and tune in to my body. After a few minutes I tend to fall into a very pleasant trance-like state: I know I'm in the zone when I get a light tingling feeling.)
If you watch a young child breathe, unless they're out of breath they will almost certainly be breathing diaphragmatically - i.e. correctly. Same as the way their posture is usually perfect (watch a child squat down to pick something up).
We're born with the right instincts but we develop bad habits - these can be changed with practice.