Contributed by Dr. Paul Angleton, a Mercy Clinic primary care physician.
Patients are often surprised when I tell them I’m going to teach them how to breathe. I get a lot of comments like, “Doc, I wouldn’t have made it to 50 if I couldn’t breathe.” Most of them end up a little surprised when they learn they’ve been doing it wrong all those years.
There's some debate in modern medicine about whether stress itself is a killer, or whether it’s more of how we respond to, or even embrace, stress. It’s clear, though, that a negative response to stress can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health.
Increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can lead to elevations in blood pressure, obesity, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, irritability and muscle tightness. Even if we aren’t showing any outward signs, we can all benefit from breaking this cycle. Relaxation, meditation, massage, regular exercise and prayer can all be helpful, but so can breathing if you do it right.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as belly breathing. A lot of people think the concept is just too simple to have any real benefit. However, the science is clear with several studies showing reductions in stress hormones and improved immune function along with a reduction in muscle tension, reduction in blood pressure, better blood flow to muscles and improved concentration. I usually recommend targeting 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. You can get some benefit in as little as a minute of intentional, focused diaphragmatic breathing.
So how is this type of breathing different? When most people take a deep breath, we will feel our shoulders rise and fall, but if we are breathing correctly, our shoulders should remain still and the belly should extend outward with the inhale and back in as we breathe out. We tend to hold our bellies in tight when we sit or stand (either for good posture or to make ourselves look skinnier) so the easiest way to learn this skill is lying down. Get comfortable, some may need to bend their knees to get the belly to feel soft even when lying down. Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Breathe though your nose and as you inhale, feel the air moving down into your belly pushing that hand upward. The hand on the chest should move little to none until the very end of the breath. When you exhale, use your abdominal muscles to force all of the air out of your lungs. At first you may need to even push with your hand a little to force the air out. Then, let the next breath in, picturing the air moving into and raising the hand on your belly.
Now that you know how to breathe properly, it’s important to practice it daily – even if you don’t feel stressed. That way, you can master this skill and use it for the more difficult days.
Mercy, named one of the top five large U.S. health systems in 2017 by Truven, an IBM Watson Health company, serves millions annually. Mercy includes 44 acute care and specialty (heart, children’s, orthopedic and rehab) hospitals, more than 700 physician practices and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.