If we look at how a child develops, we can see exactly how breathing can become inhibited. One of the biggest challenges for a young child is learning to regulate his or her emotions. How do you stop crying when your mother leaves you in your own bed at night? How do you handle the pain of falling as you struggle to walk? Or the recurring frustration of being told “no” dozens of times a day? Such are the challenges of childhood, and we all had to find ways to handle them.
One of the ways you learned to manage your emotions was by tensing the muscles in the core of your body. You found you could suppress that flood of feeling welling up in the center of your body by tightening your chest and belly muscles. Tightening muscles in the core of your body restricts the flow of energy and emotion, and protects you from feeling uncomfortable emotions. Muscular constriction inhibits your experience of internal space and keeps strong feelings under wraps. It also restricts your breathing.
Over many years, constricted breathing becomes habitual. Tight muscles around the rib cage and abdomen prevent the diaphragm from moving freely. Breathing with tight muscles tends to be shallow and inefficient. Inefficient breathing requires a faster rate of breathing to meet the body’s oxygen needs. With rapid breathing, heart rate increases, neck and shoulder muscles also become tense, and the body’s stress response is activated. As a result, people who engage in constricted breathing are more prone to experience anxiety and stress-related conditions such as hypertension, headaches, and depression. Over time, constricted breathing also drains energy, resulting in feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
The good news is that with a little training, you can learn simple ways of breathing that can transform your health and well-being for a lifetime. Breathing freely can increase energy, decrease anxiety, and enhance mood very quickly. Shifting from constricted breathing to relaxed, natural breathing turns off the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. This balances the autonomic nervous system, producing a feeling of relaxed energy, mental clarity, and a physiological state that promotes health and vitality.
Rather than inhibit your experience of internal space in your chest and abdomen, you can learn to inhabit it. In doing so you will allow your emotions and energy to flow freely. Unrestricted breathing literally opens up the space within you and inspires you with the energy of life.
Here are three different types of breathing exercises, each of which yields a specific result. You can experiment with each of them, and find the methods that most benefit you.
#1: Belly Breathing. Belly breathing involves the relaxation and contraction of the abdominal muscles. As you inhale, your abdominal muscles relax. Your diaphragm lowers and your lungs expand into the space created by the lowering of your diaphragm. Your abdominal muscles contract as you exhale. Your diaphragm rises, causing the space in your chest to shrink and your lungs to deflate. To learn how to engage in diaphragmatic or belly breathing, see Why You Should Breathe Like a Baby.
#2: Resonant Breathing. Resonant breathing involves rhythmic belly breathing at a specific rate of inhalation and exhalation. As you inhale, your heart rate speeds up, and as you exhale, your heart rate slows down. When you breathe this way at the rate of six breaths per minute, your physiology enters a profound state of balance.
Follow these steps to engage in resonant breathing:
Begin by engaging in slow belly breathing.
Inhale slowly, expanding the abdomen, as you count to five.
Exhale slowly, contracting the abdomen, as you count to five.
Repeat this for a full minute. At the end of 1 minute, you will have taken six full breaths.
One full breath is defined as an inhale and an exhale. This means that one breath takes 10 seconds, evenly distributed over the inhale and exhale. Biofeedback studies have demonstrated that at the rate of six breaths per minute, the heart becomes entrained, or synchronized, with the breath and signals the brain to release serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitters. Breathing at six breaths per minute is called resonant breathing because a specific type of tissue in the heart (called the baroreceptor) actually resonates or vibrates when synchronized to the breath.
You may find it beneficial to work with a biofeedback specialist when you try resonant breathing. While the six-breaths-per-minute respiration rate is an average that applies to most people, we all have individual physiologies that may be slightly different—yours may be between five and seven breaths per minute.
If you practice resonant breathing daily, you will strengthen your body’s capacity to produce feel-good neurotransmitters on an ongoing basis. Resonant breathing provides you with a sense of balance, enabling you to be resilient and resourceful in the face of stressful circumstances.
#3: Heart-Centered Breathing. Heart-centered breathing is another breathing practice that uses the physiological balance of rhythmic belly breathing and adds an intentional emotional focus. When you breathe in a rhythmic, resonant pattern, the resultant biochemical release helps you feel better, more relaxed, and more positive. These emotions are side effects of the breathing practices themselves. In heart-centered breathing, you take a more active approach. You directly cultivate the emotions of appreciation and love.
Follow these steps to engage in heart-centered breathing:
Begin with belly breathing, adding a few moments of your resonant breathing pattern if you wish.
After about 2 minutes of breathing in this fashion, bring your focused attention to the area around your heart. Visualize a person in your life from whom you have felt a great deal of love and trust. Imagine feeling the love and appreciation flowing directly into your heart now, as you are breathing. Allow your gratitude for this person to fill your mind and your heart.
Stay with your breathing and the emotions of love and appreciation. Now let the face of that person gently fade away so that only the feelings of love, appreciation, and gratitude remain. These are gifts that reside deep within you, available for you to experience whenever you wish.
When you combine belly breathing with a thought that evokes a nourishing feeling, such as love or appreciation, you will find that you are better able to tolerate negative emotions and cultivate ongoing feelings of well-being.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA and the author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The Breakthrough Drug-Free Program for Lasting Relief from Depression (Rodale, 2010).