One of the simplest ways to alleviate our stress is to learn abdominal breathing. The diaphragm is one of the largest muscles in the body, and when it is drawn downwards and flattened, it pulls air into the whole of the lungs. The diaphragm divides the thoracic cavity (containing the heart and lungs) from the abdominal cavity (containing the liver, pancreas, intestines etc). When it contracts, it pushes the contents of the abdomen downwards, making it feel as if we are ‘breathing into the belly’. The abdomen expands outwards, like a balloon, in front, from side to side and at the back, pressing against the sacrum.
When we are stressed or anxious, we often find ourselves taking short breaths, high up in the chest. This has the effect of signalling to the body that we are under threat and it sets up a vicious cycle. Even if a threat is imagined, the physiological response is the same. The endocrine system produces hormones (such as cortisol) which draw blood away from the digestive system, to the extremities, ready to fight or flee. These physical responses produce an emotional response, a sense of fear or anxiety, which then reinforces the physiological response. We get caught in the cycle of threat.
Yet, we can break this cycle with abdominal breathing. When we are relaxed, the body will naturally shift to a slower, deeper breath, and this allows the parasympathetic nervous system to carry out its digestive and elimination processes – we talk of the ‘rest and digest’ system. This parasympathetic nervous system also triggers emotional feelings of connectedness, safety and contentment, sometimes called the ‘tend and befriend’ response that is unique to mammals.
The respiration system is the only system that works 1) on its own, and 2) through our conscious regulation; so by drawing in a deeper breath, we signal to the body that we now feel safer, can relax and can shift into a more connected way of engaging with the world. Try the exercise below:
Start by taking one hand to the chest and one to the belly, and notice which one moves more during your normal breathing cycle.
See if you can follow the passage of the breath from the nostrils, down the back of the throat and then invite it to move right down into the abdomen.
Relax the hands into the lap, or onto the knees.
To practice abdominal breathing, we can begin by taking a normal in-breath, and then drawing the navel back towards the spine on the out-breath to squeeze stale air out of the lungs.
Allow a normal in-breath to fill the lungs, and then squeeze it out again by using the abdomen, until you become familiar with this sensation.
Feel how the air is drawn in to fill the belly on the next in-breath.
We can now slow down the breathing by using a technique commonly practised in yoga, called ‘ujjayi‘ breath. We slightly close the glottis at the back of the throat, making the sound of the ocean waves or the ‘er’ part of the word ‘whisper’.
Keep the throat slightly closed for both the in-breath and the out-breath to slow down the rhythm.
Breath in and out through the nose if possible, as this filters the air as it enters the lungs.
With practice, you will soon notice a bio-chemical response in the body, which gives a sense of relaxation, whatever the external circumstances.
Most of the techniques we use in mindfulness are deceptively simple, yet the challenge comes in remembering to use them at the time we need them. The term ‘sati’ which has come to be translated as ‘mindfulness’, also means ‘remembering’. We constantly need to remind ourselves to cultivate these simple breath practices which are so soothing for the nervous system, and bring a sense of tranquillity to both the body and the mind. Start by practicing at quieter times in your day, and then when a stressful incident arises, you will have a technique that can bring relief to both the body and the mind.