If you’re like a lot of people who’ve been to therapy, you’ve probably heard your therapist tell you to breathe. The recommendation might have been in passing, or perhaps they even taught you some specific diaphragmatic breathing exercises to practice at home. Either way, you may have asked yourself why this seems to be a thing. Why emphasize something you’re already doing? I’m breathing right now, and I bet you are too. I breathed yesterday, and the day before that, and I’ll breathe every day from now until I die.
When I’ve brought up breathing to clients, I’ve seen the initial, “I’m paying you for this?” look more than once. But breathing the right way is really good for you and might just help you reduce some of the symptoms that brought you to therapy in the first place. Let me explain.
Take Home Point 1: Normal breathing and diaphragmatic breathing are NOT the same thing.
This is critical to understand. Diaphragmatic breathing is when you fill your whole diaphragm with air, breathing fully in, and fully out. This is different from what most of our breathing tends to look like day to day, which is usually “chest breathing.” Chest breathing is faster and much more shallow, and does not utilize our entire diaphragm. Chest breathing can be associated with a heightened stress response, increased toxins in the body, and less oxygen in the brain, and is usually not very healthy. However, it’s what we’re all used to, and to create more healthy breathing habits takes training.
Take Home Point 2: In order to reduce your anxiety you must breathe through the diaphragm. All other breathing is pointless (other than it keeps you alive).
The error a lot of people make when practicing breathing exercises is that they don’t actually breathe through the diaphragm. Maybe it’s because they don’t know how to, or perhaps they erroneously think they are (but actually aren’t). For most people, there seems to be a lack of understanding regarding how important this actually is, so I want to emphasize this. If you are not breathing through your diaphragm during a mindful breathing exercise, you’re wasting your time.
Take Home Point 3: Breathing through the diaphragm activates the vagus nerve; vagus nerve activation is what reduces your anxiety.
When you breathe through your diaphragm, something amazing happens: You activate your vagus nerve, which tells your brain to stop producing anxious feelings and start relaxing. Here’s a depiction of the vagus nerve – it’s the bright yellow band running from the brain to the organs.
So here’s what happens when you breathe through the diaphragm:
1. You inhale fully, expanding your diaphragm.
2. As your diaphragm fills with air, the diaphragmatic wall pushes downward, like a balloon that is filling up.
3. When the diaphragmatic wall drops, it begins to squish your internal organs a liitle bit.
4. Wrapped around your internal organs is the vagus nerve, so as the organs are getting slightly compressed, so is the vagus nerve.
5. When the vagus nerve is pressed, such as when you breathe through your diaphragm, it activates!
6. After activating, the vagus nerve sends a signal upward, through the spine to the brain, telling the brain to stop the stress response and activate the relaxation response.
7. The brain can then reduce the stress response and everything associated with it (fast heart rate, that nervous jittery/buzzing sensation, foggy thinking) and replace it with the relaxation response!
This whole process takes about 45 seconds. That’s right – we can literally calm down and reclaim a sense of control over our emotions, thanks to how our bodies are naturally built, in less than a minute. Amazing, right? So, the next time you’re told to breathe, consider trying it, but make sure you’re breathing through the diaphragm!