Finding Calm: Deep Breaths For Your Brain

April 6, 2010 at 11:24 pm Leave a comment

Relaxation Toolbox:  Photo by frecuencia on Stock.Xchange Stress relief is an important part of keeping your brain healthy, and since modern life is full of ongoing stressors, it’s a good idea to keep a tool kit of stress busting techniques handy.

One of the simplest and most effective tools? Learning (and remembering!) to breathe deeply, from the abdomen.

Here’s how it works:

When we’re stressed, our tendency is to take short, quick, shallow breaths, moving our shoulders and ribcage, and primarily using the top part of our lungs.  In a short term stressful situation like our ancestors faced, these short, quick breaths were helpful – it reduces carbon dioxide and gives our muscles just the sort of boost of oxygen we’d need if we were being chased by a lion or taking down a wildebeest for the family dinner.  It works well for dealing with short term emergencies.

But when it comes to the sort of ongoing stress of bills, landlords and bosses that modern life tosses our way? Shallow breathing actually increases anxiety and prolongs our stress-response.

Luckily, we can consciously change our breathing pattern to that of a more relaxed state, deeper  breaths that are longer, slower, and deeper.  Deeper breathing changes the oxygen/carbon dioxide levels, and as we calm our breaths, our nervous system calms down, too.

The key to the change? We need to drive our breathing with our abdominal muscles, rather than the ribcage and shoulders.**

Start by sitting comfortably, and placing your hand on your abdomen, a few inches below the bottom of your rib cage.  Now breathe as you normally would, and notice how much your hand moves – or, for some people, doesn’t move.    Does it move up or down, or more in and out? Does it move a tiny bit, or more unnoticeably?  If it’s moving up an down (or hardly moving at all) you’re probably breathing more from the upper part of your lungs, and using your shoulders and chest to drive each breath.

With your hand in place, change how you’re breathing.   Take long, slow breaths, inhaling through the nose, and try to breathe in a way that makes your hand move outward with each inhale, at least a half inch or so. As you exhale, your hand should move back inward with your abdomen.

If you’re used to breathing more shallowly, this may take some practice to make it feel natural.  But once you’ve mastered it,  it can become a welcome, naturally calming ritual with actual physiological effects, a ritual that can help you de-stress and relax even in the most trying of circumstances.

So how about it?

Do you tend to breath from your shoulders, or belly? Do you notice a difference in how you feel, when you change your breathing?  Do you believe that a simple change in your breathing habits could reduce stress and help protect your brain from it’s damaging effects?

**Technically speaking, the diaphragm (the muscle just below our lungs) drives both shallow and deep breathing.  The diaphragm  is an involuntary muscle; we can’t directly, consciously move it.   But we can affect how the diaphragm works by moving different muscle sets – abdomen vs chest, for instance, and that in turn changes our breathing, and in turn, the levels of oxygen & carbon dioxide, and whether our not our body and mind are in stress mode, or a relaxed state.

Entry filed under: Reduce Stress. Tags: , , .

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About This Blog


A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • A Sense of Purpose & Connection
Authored by Tori Deaux
Sponsored by Dakim Brain Fitness

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