Abdominal Breathing: Foundations, Benefits and Guidelines

Abdominal Breathing

All of us are born with this knowledge of how to take deep, “full oxygen exchange” refreshing breathes. However, the rush and stresses of grown-up everyday life compel us to gradually shift from fully abdominal breathing ( also known as diaphragmatic breathing) to shallower, less satisfying, yet faster, chest breathing.

But did you know that abdominal breathing is one of the easiest and most convenient tools to combat issues like stress and anxiety, pain, high blood pressure, and even indigestion?

Want to know more? Here are a few foundations, benefits, and practice guidelines for abdominal breathing.

Anatomical Foundation

Simply put, when you consciously engage your abdomen during your inhalation, your diaphragm – the dome-shaped respiratory muscle at the base of the lungs – moves downward creating more space in your chest cavity.

This extra space allows the lungs to expand further and pull in a larger amount of fresh air, raising the volume of oxygen available in the exchanged.

Plus, in the exhalation the diaphragm moves upward in the chest cavity, pushing more carbon dioxide and other toxins out of your lungs.

Physiological Foundation

Breathing is intimately connected with the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is responsible for regulating unconscious bodily processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, etc.

This ANS has two main components: the sympathetic system that prepares our body for action, and the parasympathetic systems that regulate “rest and digest”.

A healthy nervous system has an optimal balance of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

However, an action-focused modern lifestyle can often lead to this chronic hyper-alerted activation of the nervous system, making it difficult to flip back to the parasympathetic state once the sympathetic has been activated.

As a result, we may experience sleep and digestive problem, disease, body pain, and exhaustion.

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To alleviate and counteract this imbalance is essential to consciously engage the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to downshift and recover the body and mind’s health and well-being.

This can be done through deep diaphragmatic breathing.

1) Stress reduction

Some of the important benefits of abdominal breathing are stress and tension reduction. When the body and mind are stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, the well functioning of systems like the immune system, circulatory system, digestive system, or respiratory system is compromised.

Contrarily, consciously engaging the parasympathetic nervous system through breathing allows the body to downshift and counteract the action of cortisol – the “stress hormone”.

Plus, as abdominal breathing becomes natural, it will produce this ongoing state of relaxation (e.g. your everyday level of internal tension will lessen, heart rate slows down, levels of blood pressure decreases) that will function as a buffer during challenging times.

2) Lower blood pressure

As your muscles relax, and your heart rate slows down, your blood vessels can dilate (i.e. expand in circumference), which improves circulation and also lowers blood pressure.

3) Enhances immunity and digestion

When your blood is fully oxygenated, it carries and absorbs nutrients and vitamins more efficiently, which makes it harder for illnesses to enter your system.

Plus, deep abdominal breathing engages the “repair and regenerate” response of the parasympathetic system that naturally supports the functioning of primary body systems such as the immune system or digestive system.

4) Energy

The human nervous system plays a crucial role in the storage and the consumption of energy.

While the sympathetic system is designed to recruit and employ energy during go-time, the parasympathetic system is designed to make the body relax during downtime, concentrating on energy conservation, and storage.

This is why when our nervous system stays on “alert mode” for long periods, we tend to feel tired, unrested, or even exhausted.

5) Well-Being

In addition to the feelings of ease, relaxation, and vitality that emerge from all the benefits above-mentioned, deep abdominal breathing also triggers the release of endorphins, these tiny neurochemicals that give you an overall sense of well-being, satisfaction, and happiness.

6) Cleansing

Finally, breathing is responsible for cleansing the body of 70% of the toxins that result from its natural functioning.

If we do not inhale and exhale properly, our body must work overtime to find a way to release the extra carbon monoxide (and other toxins) otherwise easily released by breathing.

Basic Guidelines

If abdominal breathing has become unnatural for your body, know that all it takes to make it natural again is practice. Start with this simple breathing exercise:

  1. Sit comfortably on a chair or another flat surface.
  2. Relax your shoulders, your face, and your body.
  3. Put your dominant hand on your lower abdomen and the other on your chest.
  4. Breathe in calmly through the nose feeling the expansion of your abdomen (for around 5 seconds).
  5. Slowly and gently release the breath through the nose (or mouth) contracting your abdomen inwardly.
  6. Repeat these steps 5 times, or as long as you would like, and feel comfortable.

Final tips:

  1. When breathing in and out, remember to check if the hand on the abdomen is moving in and out while your chest hand remains nearly still.
  2. Consider different ways to sneak it in your day, like right when you wake up or go to sleep, after lunch, in the shower. (It may help to put reminders on your phone or post-its on your computer or bathroom mirror).
  3. Schedule a longer daily session (5-10 minutes), preferably at the same time each day to reinforce the habit.
  4. Sooth your mind by focusing on the sounds and rhythm of your breathing.

All in all, proper breathing invites better health.

About the Author
Sofia R. Esmenio is a freelance writer and author The Lifeful Heart who focuses on sharing a kinder, more deliberate, and joyful way to engage with ourselves and others. Her writings merge the knowledge of a Ph.D. in Psychology with the wisdom of Buddhist tradition and daily practice.

Image source – DepositPhotos

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