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3 Ways Breathing Impacts Health

Breathing is necessary for sustaining life. The brain is constantly sending signals to the rest of the body to remind it to breathe, usually without us ever noticing. However, conscious breathing can be extremely beneficial. As it turns out, breathing impacts health significantly. Whether that impact is negative or positive depends on how often and effectively the diaphragm is used while breathing.

What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

An article by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs titled “The Power of Breath: Diaphragmatic Breathing” explains, “Diaphragmatic breathing is sometimes referred to as belly, deep, relaxed, or abdominal breathing. It optimizes use of the main muscle of breathing, the diaphragm, resulting in slower, deeper breathing.”

The deeper we breathe, the more oxygen the brain and muscles receive. This can allow the muscles to relax, cortisol levels to decrease, and heart rate and blood pressure to decrease as well. As a result, the brain can disperse necessary resources accordingly, instead of depleting resources to breathe shallowly.

How It Works: Breathing Through the Diaphragm

To breathe through the diaphragm:

  1. Inhale slowly through the nose, making sure to expand the stomach like a balloon while breathing in.
  2. During inhalation, the stomach should rise and get bigger first, then the ribs and chest expand. This can be tested by putting one hand on the stomach and one on the chest while breathing.
  3. Slowly exhale completely, letting the stomach deflate as the air escapes.
  4. Repeat the process for 5-10 minutes or as long as your clinician instructs.

When in doubt, a publication titled “Breathing” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs titled recommends using the acronym of DASS:

How Breathing Impacts Health

Typically used as a complementary health approach, diaphragmatic breathing impacts health in multiple ways. The aforementioned article reports that diaphragmatic breathing can have significant health benefits, including:

In addition, research shows that diaphragmatic breathing impacts health through the nervous system, pain perception, and physical and mental health.

Breathwork and the Nervous System

Emotions often affect breathing habits. For example, if we are scared or nervous, our breathing usually quickens and becomes difficult or heavy. This is a result of the nervous system notifying the rest of the body of potential danger or threat. The nervous system immediately reacts and begins preparing the body to defend itself in any way necessary.

A publication titled “Breathing” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states, “When our thoughts and lives are stressed or rushed in this hectic world, our bodies often respond with shallow, fast, or choppy breathing. This can be reflective of sympathetic nervous system dominance (also known as the “fight or flight” response).” Once the fight or flight response is activated, the body typically won’t be able to relax until it knows it’s safe to do so. This is where diaphragmatic breathing can be especially valuable.

Clinicians often use diaphragmatic breathing to help empower their patients to slow down racing thoughts and restore order to the nervous system through slow, controlled breathing. Restoring order to the nervous system can happen when the amygdala (the part of the brain that alerts against danger) is deactivated, which allows the prefrontal cortex to send messages of safety to the rest of the body. This is not something that happens overnight or after one session of deep breathing. It takes practice and should be done under the advisement of a licensed clinician, but nevertheless, healing is possible.

Breathing and Pain Perception

In addition to impacting the nervous system, breathing has also been known to impact pain perception. The aforementioned article “The Power of Breath” states, “An experimental study found that deep and slow breathing associated with relaxation resulted in the modulation of sympathetic arousal and pain perception.” The article goes on to explain that people with tension headaches and low back pain have also found relief from their symptoms by using diaphragmatic breathing.

Another example of breathing through the pain can be found in childbirth. One of the common practices of childbirth classes is teaching the laboring mother to control her breath and take deep, effective breaths. This can give her muscles relief, oxygen, and strength needed to endure painful contractions. It may not take the pain away, but it does allow the mother to have a natural, active part in managing her pain through labor.

How Breathing Impacts Health: Physical and Mental

We know that physical and mental health are deeply intertwined, but it turns out breathing can also greatly impact physical and mental health.

As stated in the article “The Power of Breath,” “Moderate to strong support was found for the effectiveness of [breathwork and chanting] on depression, stress and symptoms of PTSD.” Examples of physical exercise methods that incorporate intentional breathwork include the practices of yoga or qigong. These methods are known for utilizing breath to connect the mind and body in a cohesive, natural way. Any positive physical movement has exponential health benefits, which can often lead to more positive mental health benefits.

In addition, the article reports that diaphragmatic breathing can also provide symptom relief from the following conditions:

At Sage Recovery, we pride ourselves on our innovative approaches to treatment. Whether you are seeking healing from a mental health disorder, SUD, or traumatic event, we are here to help. Our master’s level clinicians specialize in multiple treatment approaches, so you can be sure you will receive individualized treatment that works for your specific needs. Each staff member is highly trained to provide trauma-informed care, so you can rest easy knowing that you will be treated with dignity and respect. We offer outpatient treatment for adolescents and adults, as well as residential treatment for adults. Whenever you’re ready to take the first step toward healing, reach out to us at (512) 306-1394. We are eager to walk alongside you.