Dr. Ducharme’s Blog Stress Relief with Abdominal Breathing

March 22, 2020

I have written about this before. But during this very stressful time of COVID 19 it is helpful to think about where we have some control. For many being stuck in the house with kids and spouses can lead to increased levels of anxiety. The stress only increases when hearing reporters who seem to want to phrase things in a negative light and speak as if the world were going to end tomorrow.

There is no question we are in difficult times. But we are being given clear directions as to some of the things we can do to help. We can stay at home. We can wash our hands regularly. We can support local restaurants by ordering take out. We can contribute to the solution by supporting first responders and each other.

But for many, a sense of unease remains very strong. One thing that really can help is abdominal breathing and meditation. It really does work, especially after a little practice.

I would like you to try this exercise. Begin by closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing.
Are you:

·        breathing rapidly or slowly?

·        taking deep breaths or shallow breaths?

·        feeling the breath in the center of your chest, or down around your abdomen.

Most people tend to breathe in a slightly abnormal way, they tend to hold in their stomachs, make little use of their diaphragm, and breathe using the muscles of their upper chest, neck and shoulders. This is not the most effective way to get the needed oxygen to our brain and muscles. If you watch babies or animals breathe, you will notice that they breathe with their whole bodies, their bellies rise and fall with each breath. For some reason, we stop doing this when we outgrow diapers. No one really knows why.

The good news is that we can relearn how to breathe properly – learning to breathe using our abdomens. This can help us control our feelings of stress. In fact, abdominal breathing is the single most effective strategy for stress reduction! A person’s normal breathing rate is 8-12 breaths per minute. But if someone is stressed, or having a panic attack, they tend to breathe faster (up to 20-30 breaths per minute) and more shallowly. Although we may seem to be breathing more when this happens, we are not actually getting much oxygen in, and the breathing is not as effective as it could be.

Abdominal breathing means breathing fully from your abdomen or from the bottom of your lungs. It is exactly the reverse of the way you breathe when you’re anxious or tense, which is typically shallow and high in your chest. If you’re breathing from your abdomen, you can place your hand on your abdomen and see it actually rise each time you inhale. You’ll find that abdominal breathing will help you relax any time you are feeling anxious.

To practice abdominal breathing, follow these steps:

1.      Place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage

2.     Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into the bottom of your lungs. Your chest should move only slightly, while your stomach rises, pushing your hand up.

3.     When you’ve inhaled fully, pause for a moment and then exhale fully through your mouth.  Purse your lips and imagine that you are blowing on a hot spoonful of soup. As you exhale, just let yourself go and imagine your entire body going loose and limp. It should take you twice as long to exhale as it did to inhale.

4. To relax, practice taking and releasing 3-5 abdominal breaths in a row. Try to keep your breathing smooth and regular throughout, without gulping in a big breath or exhaling suddenly.

Practice this technique several times a day…in the shower, before your meals, before bed or any other time when you find yourself able to take a break for a few minutes. Once you master the technique you will discover that you will very effectively be able to decrease your stress/anxiety with just a couple of good breaths. And that, is always a very good thing!