My mother used to always say “Take a Deep Breath” when I was angry at my sister, or upset about something as a child. I never realized how very valuable that advice was until much later. I teach breathing techniques to my patients every day. We go over and over it everytime they come in. I get into a rut with it and doubt it’s importance and then I do a little reading and google searching and am reminded of the amazing, beautiful importance of the diaphragm and its amazing ability to impact so many of our bodies functions. It truly is at the heart of “holisitc” healing. So these days when my children push my buttons, or I have had enough of traffic, or my phone seems to buzz constantly, I take that deep abdominal breath and think of my mother. Then I remember all the things that are benefitted by that simple action. I wanted to share all the reasons it is important to exercise the diaphragm muscle and just breathe.
First, lets review the normal mechanics of breathing. The diaphragm muscle sits at the top of the abdominal cavity, separating the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Upon inhale, it contracts pulling air into the lungs. At the same time, the muscles between the ribs, the intercostal muscles contract expanding the rib cage. As we exhale, the diaphragm muscle relaxes and air moves out of the lungs. The intercostal muscles relax and the rib cage gets smaller.
The pelvic floor muscles are a very important piece in this system as well, functioning alongside the diaphragm for breathing. During inhale they relax and descend down. With exhale, they recoil back up, mirroring the movement of the diaphragm. This piston-like movement provides massage and movement to the abdominal and pelvic organs, helps to pump blood and lymphatic fluid through the trunk, it helps to aid in pelvic floor muscle healthy function and keeps a balance through the trunk musculature.
Taking even 5 minutes every day to practice abdominal breathing is beneficial to us as humans! The more you do the longer the carry-over becomes greater and greater. Abdominal breathing teaches self-soothing to allow for better stress management, less anxiety and better sleep. It is calming to our bodies in a world of stimulation from phones, tablets, computers, and TV. Abdominal breathing turns down our sympathetic nervous system. Wait! it sounds too technical but keep reading…The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for “fight or flight”, meaning if you walk up on a bear in the woods this system is what tells you to RUN! Of course like all things in nature, there has to be a balance, and the sympathetics’s partner is the parasympathetic system. We need a good balance between the two. When one is overstimulated (ahem, put down your cell phone for a minute and focus here!), we tend to live in that mode of heightened awareness. This increases heart rate, blood pressure and decreases blood flow away from our organs to divert it to where it needs to be to get away from that bear. Helpful when we really need to get away, but not helpful in our daily lives when really all we need to do is calm down.
Abdominal breathing favors the parasympathetic nervous system. It brings increased oxygenation to our blood stream, it slows heart rate and decreases blood pressure. It turns the sympathetic nervous system down a notch, putting that bear into hibernation mode. This allows for decreased stress, decreased anxiety and improved cognition and brain function. This improves blood flow to vital organs, keeping systems mo ving happily. It relaxes muscle groups, reducing pain and inflammation. In a world where we are going every minute it would greatly benefit everyone to take just 5 minutes daily and JUST BREATHE.
Here is how to do it:
Find a comfortable position, the one shown below should work for most people. Do this at a time of day when you can follow it with a calm activity or are ready for sleep, as this is designed to soothe you and put you in a sedated state. Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Inhale through your nostrils, allow your abdomen to expand and blow up like a balloon.
Exhale, and the abdomen falls down. Repeat this for 5 to 10 minutes, feeling and allowing your entire body to relax.
Try working this into your day, every day and see and feel the benefit!
– Sarah Dominguez, PT, CLT