First, breathe

Next time you feel stressed out, try checking in with your breathing.  You’ll probably notice that it’s one of these things:

  • Shallow, with only the top part of your chest moving as you breathe
  • Rapid, as if you’re walking at a good clip (but here you are, sitting at the computer instead!)
  • Stopped altogether (not good, huh?)
    Animation of lungs and diaphragm during breathing
    Diaphragmatic breathing, by John Pierce  [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (]

When we’re anxious, stressed, or feeling frenzied, one of the first things to go is good solid breathing. The opposite is also true, that when you start breathing again, you’ll begin to turn around those negative feelings.

Just as an experiment, stop reading this and just focus on your breathing. Put one hand on your belly, below the navel, and notice whether the abdomen expands and contracts with the breath.

If if doesn’t, or the movement is so slight as to be imperceptible, then you’re probably not getting full breaths.

It’s supposed to work like this:

  • Inhaling coincides with the diaphragm (a big muscle below the lungs) dropping lower into the abdomen, which balloons out to make space for it. The lungs fill with air, all the way down to that extra space created by the diaphragm’s movement.
  • On the exhalation, the air is expelled from the lungs as the diaphragm moves up and the belly gently contracts.

When it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, we get shallow breathing at the tops of the lungs, not enough oxygen into the system, and not enough expelling of stale air from the lungs. These in turn exacerbate other stress-related problems in the body, such as hypertension and immune system disorders.

Get into the habit of noticing when you’re feeling stressed, then saying to yourself, “First, breathe.”  First, because before you do anything else, you need to activate your body’s ability to tame the stress, and that starts with the breath.

Besides, just the act of deep breathing gives you a few moments of relaxation and calm. Then, no matter what the problem, it’s easier to deal with.

To your ease!

Pat Daniel, Ph.D.

© 2011, Pat Daniel, Ph.D. and
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