One of the first signs that you are stressed is a change in your breathing. You’ve probably noticed that when you are stressed, your breathing becomes shallow and irregular, almost like panting.
This happens because when you are stressed you only use a portion of your lungs. You tend to breathe with just the top third of your lungs. The rest of your lungs get squeezed out of the process and rob you of vital oxygen and energy.
When you are stressed, tension causes your diaphragm and the muscles in your abdomen to work against each other. Your diaphragm is a large band of muscle tissue that is attached all around the lower portion of your rib cage. It separates the contents of your chest cavity (the lungs, heart, etc.) from the contents of your abdominal cavity (stomach, intestines, etc.).
Contracting and relaxing the diaphragm affects the volume of your chest cavity and the air pressure in your lungs. When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts and pulls downward, increasing the volume of air in your chest cavity.
If you put your hands on your belly, just below your rib cage, when you breathe you can feel your belly push out as your diaphragm contracts and pulls downward. Some people call diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, because of this phenomenon. When you breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes, gets looser, and moves back to its normal position higher in your chest. When this happens, the pressure in your lungs increases, forcing the air in your lungs out through your nose or mouth.
When you are stressed, the muscles in your abdomen tighten up and work against your diaphragm’s natural downward push. To offset this and get the stress-reducing benefits of breathing, you must learn how to get your entire lungs (not just the top third) involved.
You need to learn how to fill your lungs completely from the bottom up. Learning how to breathe this way takes practice but you can master it in just a few minutes a day.
In fact as little as five good breaths (deep, diaphragmatic breaths) can break the tension and create a more relaxed diaphragm that will help you short-circuit the stress response and get you centered.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the first strategy I teach on my Relaxation Audio Collection. It is the basis for all other classic relaxation strategies. Spending just a few minutes a day listening to my audio files and following the simple instructions will put your body in a relaxed state that cancels out the stress response.