We are born knowing how to breathe from our abdomen, but the stress of daily life causes the muscles in our body to hold onto a certain amount of tension. One set of muscles that often tenses as a result of chronic stress are the muscles in the walls of your abdomen. When these muscles tighten, they push against your diaphragm as it extends downward to begin each new breath. This limits the amount of air you are able to inhale, and results in a shallow breath, centered high up in the chest.
High, shallow breaths can lead to lack of oxygen, more rapid breathing, and eventually, even hyperventilation. You may feel dizzy or disoriented and as if you are not getting enough air. Your heart may beat quickly. You may feel that you are having a heart attack, and these physical sensations can escalate into a full-blown panic attack.
Deep abdominal breathing allows carbon dioxide and other wastes to be removed from your body, and more oxygen to reach your bloodstream. You have more physical energy, because oxygen is going to the muscles, and you have a greater ability to think clearly due to increased oxygen supply. Finally, deeper breaths will allow you to feel less anxious and more focused.
To practice abdominal breathing for relaxation, set aside 10 or 15 minutes a day at a time and place where you will not be interrupted. Lying comfortably on your back or sitting in a supportive chair, get comfortable and loosen any tight clothing that might be distracting.
Breathe in and out a few times and notice where your breath is centered. Note whether it is your chest or your abdomen that moves in and out as you breathe. Try to breathe in through your nose, as this will warm and filter the air.
Next, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen, below your rib cage. Breathe in, letting your breath fill your lungs to their very lowest point. A hand on your abdomen should rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Place your other hand on your chest, where it should remain fairly still.
Breathe in and out in a gentle and complete way. Breathe at a pace that is comfortable to you. Let go of any straining or sense of forced breathing; let the air fill your lungs in a relaxed and complete way.
As your breath becomes more regular, begin to count every time you exhale. After 10 exhalations, start the count over again and count to 10 exhalations again continue to breathe fully and deeply from your abdomen, counting exhalations in groups of 10 and returning to the count when your mind is distracted or wonders. Continue breathing and focusing on the count for approximately 10 minutes.
Try to practice relaxed abdominal breathing daily, as many days of the week as possible. As you become more comfortable breathing abdominally, you will be able to use this skill to relax in any situation of stress.