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How to Breathe When You’re Trying to Relax

By Karin Luk, LGSW

It seems like an obvious thing to say that breathing is important. It comes naturally to us and we do it because it’s necessary for our survival. There are many studies on the benefits breathing can have in reducing stress, anxiety, irritability, and tension. But would you believe that most people do not know how to take a deep breath? It sounds ridiculous, but stay with me. People tend to use two types of breathing in their daily life, chest breathing and abdominal breathing. 

What Is Chest Breathing?

Chest breathing or thoracic breathing tends to be shallow and rapid. With chest breathing, you are taking air into your chest with your shoulders rising to let you take in more air. So often, you will see your chest or shoulders rising when you are doing chest breathing. You can see this type of breathing a lot with little kids where their whole chest seems to move up and down, especially after they’ve been running or otherwise exerting themselves. Chest breathing that is rapid and shallow means you are taking in less oxygen to send to your brain and body parts, and you end up releasing more carbon dioxide. Chest breathing is associated with stress and anxiety and in more extreme cases results in hyperventilation. So, if you are trying to relax, chest breathing is not what you want to be doing.

What Is Abdominal Breathing? 

Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is slower and deeper than chest breathing. Air is drawn into the lungs as the abdomen expands. Picture a balloon. As you are inhaling your stomach should be expanding like a balloon being filled with air and when you exhale the balloon deflates back to its original size. Abdominal breathing lets you take in the oxygen that your body needs. If you are used to breathing with your chest abdominal breathing can feel like it takes more work but it actually is something that we do all the time you just may not be aware you’re doing it. When you are asleep, you are likely doing abdominal breathing when your body is in that relaxed state.  

An easy way to see if you are using abdominal breathing is to lay down on a flat surface with one hand on your chest, and the other on your stomach. Breathe how you normally do and notice how your hands rise and fall with your breathing. If the hand resting on your stomach rises more than the hand on your chest, you are breathing with your diaphragm.

Abdominal Breathing Exercises to Try

I often recommend the following exercises to help clients get used to abdominal breathing. I like them because they are simple, don’t take a lot of time, and are easy to use on a daily basis. They both involve counting so get ready! Before you get started, it’s not a bad idea to make sure you are in a comfortable sitting position. Try placing your feet on the floor and let your arms rest in your lap. Let’s begin!

  • Box breathing: Simply breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, and pause for 4 seconds. I recommend you do this cycle 4-5 times in a row. 
  • 4-7-8 breaths: With this exercise breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 8 seconds. 

With these exercises, give yourself time to breathe slowly and deeply as rushing through them won’t help you feel relaxed. If you know you’re going to be doing something stressful, take a moment to do one of these exercises beforehand to help calm those nerves and clear out some space mentally.  

If you are looking for additional help managing stress in your life, our counselors at Symmetry can help. Explore our counseling services online to see how we can help, and contact us today to get paired with a therapist.

Davis, M., Eshelman, E. R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook, 6th ed. New Harbinger. 

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