Just Breathe

That first breath we breathe is the start of something we will depend on the rest of our lives. Breathing is something many of us take for granted. On the other hand, it can be easy to overlook something that we can do involuntarily. As a result of this involuntary process, many of us are not aware of the benefits of efficient breathing patterns.

Breathing allows us to get oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide waste. Air comes in through the nose and then to your trachea, which connects to your lungs. When the lung expands, the diaphragm, which is a muscle separating the lungs and abdomen, contracts. This reduces pressure in the chest cavity and creates suction. When air gets to the lungs it is carried by the bronchial tubes to alveoli (sacs) where oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide. Small blood vessels carry oxygen to the heart where the blood is pumped and then carries oxygen to all parts of the body to be used for energy. Carbon dioxide cannot be used so it is returned and exhaled out.

The process described occurs each time we breathe. However, many of us do not breathe as efficiently as we could. For instance, some people breathe with rapid, shallow breaths. This is often identified as chest breathing and often occurs in times of distress and in situations where high anxiety is experienced. Chest breathing facilitates air exchange at the top of the lungs. However, the lower lobes of the lungs allow for the greatest amount of blood flow. Thus, chest breathing results in less oxygen transfer to the blood and poor delivery of energy to our body.

On the other hand, abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing draws air deep in the lungs. It forces the abdomen to expand and creates a negative pressure in the chest, which then forces air into the lungs. This pressure also pulls blood into the chest and improves the return of oxygen to the heart. This increased expansion and improved blood flow results in increased energy production and better removal of carbon dioxide waste.

Learning to use abdominal breathing, sometimes referred to as belly breathing, can have a variety of benefits. It can be effective in reducing anxiety and panic attacks, depression, irritability, muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue. It can even prevent infection in the lungs, aid with lowering high blood pressure, and improve circulation related to body temperature.

When one experiences stress, it is easy to suggest for him/her to ‘just breathe’. So why don’t people feel better when they take a deep breath? Learning to breathe efficiently can take some practice. In order to maximize the benefits of breathing, it is important to develop the appropriate awareness and skill in abdominal breathing.
Place your hand on your abdomen at the waistline and the other hand on your chest, in the center. To ensure proper breathing, the hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the hand on the chest.
Take a slow deep breath in through the nose, sucking in all the air you can and hold up to 7 seconds.
Then slowly exhale out of your mouth to a count of 8. As the air is released, gently contract the muscles in the abdomen to completely force out the remaining air in the lungs.
Repeat this for a total of 5 cycles, trying to breathe at a rate of 1 breath every 10 seconds.
Once this becomes more comfortable, this process should feel rather rhythmic. It can be helpful to add self-talk while breathing to receive additional benefit from this exercise, such as times when one is experiencing anxiety or depression. For instance, saying ‘relax’ when one inhales and then ‘anger’ when exhaling can assist in bringing in the emotions we want and forcing out those that are unpleasant.

Abdominal breathing is merely a building block to additional breathing strategies aimed at releasing tension, stimulating alertness, and managing a variety of symptoms. There are great benefits to increasing one’s awareness of the breathing pattern. Next time someone suggests to ‘just breathe,’ consider giving more attention to your breathing and thus reaping the benefits of this innate process.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work.  She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.


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