How Breathing Exercises Relieve Stress and Improve Digestive Health
You know the feeling you get when you can’t find your wallet? Or you’re stuck in traffic? Or you see a car coming that just misses you? Stressful events may cause different emotional responses, such as anger or fear, but they also cause an immediate physical reaction: The heart beats faster, breathing is more rapid and you feel a knot in your stomach. This happens because the body is getting ready to fight back or run away, even before the mind has had time to think.
The “fight or flight” response causes blood to move from the gut to the larger muscles, which interferes with digestion, weakens the immune system and increases inflammation. These changes don’t last long, and in the short term they are not harmful and may even be helpful, but when they happen again and again over time, they can hurt your health. The good news is, you can learn to turn off this automatic response through deep breathing.
Taking slow, deep breathes creates a “relaxation response” that calms the mind and body. Abdominal breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce muscle tension and stop the fight-or-flight response.
Chest Breathing vs. Abdominal Breathing
There are two ways we breathe: through the chest and through the abdomen. Chest breathing is shallow. The shoulders rise with each breath and only the chest expands. With shallower breaths, less oxygen enters the blood, hurting digestion, increasing the heart rate and tensing muscles. Chest breathing is most common when we feel stressed, anxious, or in pain.
Abdominal breathing is the natural breathing of newborn babies and sleeping adults. It starts by relaxing the belly and taking slow, deep breaths. The stomach expands as the diaphragm moves downward to allow air to fill the lungs. When you breathe through the abdomen, it will feel like a balloon is gently expanding with each breath in and falling back down (contracting) with each breath out.
A Step-by-step Guide to Deep Breathing
- Find a comfortable, quiet location and lie in a flat or reclined position.
- Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into your abdomen to push your hand up. Breathe only as deeply as feels comfortable. Your chest should remain still or move only slightly.
- Exhale through your mouth, making a quiet, relaxing whooshing sound as you gently blow out.
- Your abdomen should rise as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out.
- When you feel comfortable with this technique, count “one” as you breathe in and say “relax” or “calm” as you breathe out.
- Focus attention on the relaxing word and tune out any other thoughts or sounds.
- Repeat the steps until you count up to 10.
Relaxation Response Tips
Taking calm, deep breaths is easy, and you can start now. But it takes weeks or even months to fully benefit from abdominal breathing. I recommend practicing for 10 minutes one or two times a day. While you are learning, do breathing exercises in a quiet, private area where you will not be disturbed. Although the goal is to relax, you don’t want to fall asleep, so choose times of day when you are alert.
In time, you will be comfortable doing abdominal breathing in everyday settings, such as:
- At work, instead of grabbing a soda or cup of coffee
- During your lunch break
- As you take the bus or train to work
- In your car when you arrive home before you go inside
- During a commercial break when you’re watching TV
- After your workout or evening walk
- Before bed to help you fall asleep
- In the morning soon after you wake
Practice abdominal breathing every day so when a stressful situation arises, you are ready to handle it calmly and prevent the stress from hurting your health.
Read Dr. Kinsinger's blog post on the brain-gut connection.
Sarah Kinsinger, PhD, is a board-certified health psychologist and director of behavioral medicine for Loyola’s Digestive Health Program. Dr. Kinsinger specializes in the use of behavioral interventions for gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. A certified cognitive therapist trained in the use of clinical hypnosis for medical conditions, Dr. Kinsinger sees patients at Loyola Center for Health at Burr Ridge and Loyola Outpatient Center in Maywood.