Breathe in, breathe out. The act of inhaling and exhaling comes naturally, so much so that we don’t even need to think about it. It is a necessary survival skill. Often, breathing is equivalent to living itself. If it’s something we learn how to do moments after our own birth, how can something as easy as breathing be something we do incorrectly?
When we breathe, we do it subconsciously, and because of this, we rarely notice what we’re doing wrong. Stand still, and take a breath as you normally would right now. Is your chest lifting? Are your shoulders moving up and down as you inhale and exhale? If you’re like me, the answer is probably yes.
This is known as chest breathing, often referred to as shallow breathing. As the name suggests, you can only take in a much more limited amount of air with chest breathing as your chest contracts and expands. It can often lead to feelings of breathlessness and puts pressure on the muscles of your shoulders and chest. As a result, our breaths become shorter and quicker, which may make it easier to hyperventilate during a time of great distress. It’s an inefficient and labor-intensive way that forces you to breathe faster.
As college students, we know how quickly a wave of stress can overwhelm us. The independence and freedom that come from living away from home also come with all of the responsibilities to maintain our grades and health. In my personal experience, it’s especially hard to catch my breath then, as my breathing quickens.
However, stomach breathing — or diaphragmatic breathing — uses the full capacity of our lungs. The diaphragm, a huge muscle below our lungs, is a key component in breathing correctly that helps to pull air into our lungs when it contracts, creating a vacuum. When belly breathing, we use our stomachs, abdominal muscles and diaphragms to inhale a deep breath. Place a hand on your stomach. If your stomach expands instead of your chest, then you are breathing correctly. This allows us to intake a much greater volume of air, leading to more even, slower breaths. There is a reason why deep breathing is a highly recommended technique to calm you down: because it works. It sends a message to our brains to slow down and relax, slowing our heart rate. In addition, deep breathing supplies more oxygen to your brain. As a bonus, it even helps to correct bad posture.
So how does one exactly learn how to belly breathe? It’s simple. Here’s an easy exercise that can help you.
Sit or lie down. Relax your muscles. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and breathe out through your mouth. Repeat this. Count to five seconds as you inhale, and do it again as you exhale. Place your hand on your belly and focus on making it rise as you breathe. To strengthen your diaphragm, place a lightweight, such as a book, on top of your stomach. Make it rise by inhaling. If you have been chest breathing your entire life as I have, it will feel unnatural at first. But once you slowly practice a couple of times, it will feel natural.
I’ve experienced firsthand how quickly and easily my breathing can spiral out of control. When this happens, everything from my heart rate to my thoughts is running at the speed of a freight train. But by counting the seconds for each inhale and exhale, I’m able to ground myself and focus. This method is effective for anyone with anxiety, but it’s an easy technique that can be utilized by anyone. In such a stressful environment, it’s helpful and reassuring to have a universal tool to help calm you down.