Abdominal Breathing

or Diaphragmatic Breathing

One of the common areas where people tend to hold tension in the body is the abdomen. You may be doing it right now, check to see if your belly is relaxed, especially when you are inhaling.

Abdominal breathing is an easy and effective way to release this tension and deepen your breath.

Give it a try the next time you recognize that you are agitated. Expanding the belly with each in-breath and gently squeezing the air out with the out-breath.

Try on EKA App!

Let’s try it out here!

Let’s first understand why we hold tension in our abdomen,

It helps to know about our other nervous system — the enteric nervous system (ENS.) If you didn’t know there was another nervous system, don’t feel bad, scientists have only relatively recently begun thinking of it this way. The enteric nervous system is in our gut, and you’ve probably noticed that a lot of your intensely felt emotions are felt in the gut. So the ENS might signal that it’s not going to be digesting (due to flight or flight signals of anxiety) for a while by making some stomach pains, which in turn an individual might respond to by holding tension in the core.

If you investigated a little more, you would first learn that people suffering from panic attacks or anxiety sometimes hyperventilate –that is they breathe in a way that is too rapid and too shallow. On one side of the equation, the body is telling the respiratory system to breathe faster to match a quickening heart rate. On the other side of the equation, anxious individuals are holding tension in the abdomen and torso, thus forcing said individual to breathe into an increasingly restricted portion of the chest.

Combining the Central Nervous System (CNS) -related order to speed the breathing , and any ENS-related tension held in the gut, an anxiety sufferer may become exhausted by breathing faster and faster while not improving oxygen flow to the body’s cells. While anxiety can cause breathing difficulties, these difficulties can also cause the anxiety to become worse, creating a spiral toward disaster (Paulus.)

Abdominal breathing is a technique to consciously relax the belly muscles.

The main muscle of our breathing is the diaphragm which sits near the lower ribs and it has to push downward into the abdomen to create room for fresh air to come into the lungs. When we hold our belly tight, the diaphragm has to put a lot more effort into doing this simple repetitive movement. So by consciously relaxing the belly muscles while inhaling, we reduce the effort and allow an easier and deeper breath.

When we have anxiety or a panic attack, sometimes there is rapid and shallow breathing. In these instances, a longer and slower breath plays a huge role in keeping the mind calm.

As we’ll discuss more below, our breathing and central nervous system (CNS) are intertwined. Primitive brain centers can tell us to breathe faster or slower, but consciously changing one’s breath can also serve as a feedback signal to stimulate or relax one’s body.

Nothing restores a state of peace and calm like a few deep breaths.

That’s because when we breathe out, our heart beats a little less intensely and this has a calming effect on the body. When we breathe deeply and slowly, we are encouraging the body to go into rest and digest mode, while moving away from fight or flight. Zaccaro et. al. found there was significant evidence that slower breathing resulted in greater heart rate variability (HRV.) 

[That’s a good thing. Reduced HRV has been indicated as a risk factor for a number of fatal or debilitating conditions, whereas increased HRV is an indicator of — among other things — a more responsive parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. allowing one to slip into rest and digest mode.]

Breathing into a paper bag can also help

Have you ever heard it said that a person should breathe into a paper sack to combat an anxiety attack? You may have found yourself wondering whether this really works, and — if so — how? It turns out this strange method is helpful for many sufferers of panic attacks. Let’s look at this strange connection between paper sacks and panic attacks to see how slowing and deepening one’s breath can help counter anxiety.

For those experiencing a panic attack, the fast / shallow breathing flushes carbon dioxide from the body too quickly. Maintaining the right homeostatic balance in one’s body requires balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, and breathing out too much carbon dioxide too quickly can make one lightheaded and prone to fainting. So, when one breathes into a paper bag, some of the exhaled carbon dioxide is trapped in the paper sack and one begins to restore balance by breathing in the higher concentration of carbon dioxide.

In the Eka pranayama section, you can learn a variety of breathing styles that will have a calming effect on the body, starting with abdominal breathing but including a number of styles that deepen and slow the rate of breathing.

Bernardi, L., Gabutti, A., Porta, C., & Spicuzza, L. (2001.) Slow breathing reduces chemoreflex response to hypoxia and hypercapnia, and increases baroreflex sensitivity. Journal of Hypertension, 19:12. 2221-2229.

Brown R. P., Gerbarg P. L. (2005.) Sudarshan kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part II—Clinical applications and guidelines. J. Altern. Complement. Med. 11: 711–717.

Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017.) The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology. 8: 874.

Paulus M. P. (2013.) The breathing conundrum-interoceptive sensitivity and anxiety. Depression and anxiety . 30:4. 315–320.

Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 12: 353.