Breathing Exercises May Help Reduce Your Stress and Ease Other Symptoms

Your diaphragm, not your upper body muscles, should drive your breathing. Practicing proper breathing techniques is easy.

Breathing exercises may be one type of fitness routine you don’t think you’ll ever need. Unless you have a condition that impairs your breathing, you probably don’t think much about how you inhale and exhale.

But you should, especially if you’re trying to reduce the stress in your life. Chronic stress can affect the muscles you use to breathe, which can then lead to a range of physical and emotional complications, explains Mike Bento, an advanced trainer with The Clubs at Charles River Park, the Wellness Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. He adds that with a few simple breathing exercises, you can relax more and cut down on some of the physical and mental strain in your life.

Bento says that your breathing should be driven by your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle in the middle of your torso. Your upper body muscles should be relaxed. “But many of us use our neck, shoulder and upper chest muscles to breathe,” he says. “Chronic stress can create an upper chest breathing pattern that gradually becomes the new normal. This can cause altered mood, decreased alertness, increased pain sensitivity, poor core stability and widespread trigger points throughout the neck and shoulders. To put it plainly, breathing this way makes you feel worse. The good news is, re-establishing a good breathing pattern is relatively easy to do.”

Breathe Right

One way to determine if you’re breathing optimally is to sit in front of a mirror with your left hand on your upper abdomen and your right hand on your chest. Take a deep breath. Your left hand should move slightly as your diaphragm pushes out. Your right hand should move slightly at the end. If you raise your shoulders and your abdomen pulls inward, you need to adjust your breathing, Bento says.

One of the simplest breathing exercises to help get you inhaling and exhaling properly starts with you sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Place your fingers at your sides, just under your ribs, with your thumbs around toward your back. Breathe in slowly through your nose while concentrating on using your diaphragm and pushing down and out with your abdomen. Keep your shoulders relaxed.

Exhale slowly through pursed lips for about six to eight seconds. Repeat 30 times, but be careful not to exhale too quickly and get lightheaded. Do this daily.

“You may need additional breathing exercises to correct other issues in your neck, shoulders and core, but re-establishing diaphragmatic breathing will have widespread positive effects,” Bento says. “You will feel more relaxed, refreshed and alert and help your core muscles work better.”

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