Self-Care: The Mechanics of Breathing

Breathing provides us with the most important thing we need to live: oxygen. But as we age, we fall into bad habits; we do not breathe in the most optimal or ideal way. And when stressed, it can feel as if we forget to breathe altogether. Exploring the mechanics of breathing will help us understand how we breathe and the benefits of breathing correctly.

The Science: Respiration

When we inhale through our nose or mouth, the air travels down the throat to the windpipe, which is divided into two bronchial tubes; one leading to each lung. Inside the lungs, those bronchial tubes branch off into smaller air passages which end in tiny balloon-like air sacs called alveoli. These sacs are surrounded by tiny blood vessels that absorb the oxygen from the air into the blood that then travels to the heart where it is pumped throughout the body. The cells in your body use the oxygen to build new tissues, convert food to energy and dispose of waste materials (carbon dioxide and water).

When you inhale, your lungs expand to provide maximum space for incoming air with it fresh supply of oxygen. Exhaling presses out the waste materials of carbon dioxide and water. But your lungs don’t power themselves. Muscles, including the diaphragm, intercostals (which are situated between the ribs), and the abdominal or stomach muscles, work together to help the lungs expand and contract with the diaphragm doing 80% of the work.

The Mechanics: Diaphragmatic Breathing

As you inhale, the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles contract. This contraction allows the rib cage to open, pushes the abdominal contents towards the pelvis and expands the abdomen. The specific “drawing down” action of the diaphragm creates a vacuum, sucking air into the lungs and filling them to capacity.

Exhaling is essentially the reversal of that action. The respiratory muscles “relax”, the diaphragm rises back towards the rib cage, and air is expelled from the lungs.

When done correctly this action causes your abdomen to rise and fall. Hence the term “abdominal” or “diaphragmatic” breathing. This is the most optimal way to breathe and the majority of us do it incorrectly.

When we don’t fully engage the diaphragm, our body starts to use different muscles in the neck, back and chest for breathing. This leads to “shallow” or “chest” breathing which does not allow as much air to be drawn into the lungs.

Deep Breathing and Stress

When a stressful situation presents itself or a situation is perceived as stressful, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered and our bodies react with the “fight or flight” response: Our heart rate increases, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and muscles tense. If these reactions to the stressful event are not interrupted, they can create a harmful cycle where the stress causes a response that then increases the stress – and on and on.

Deep breathing, which uses the diaphragm, draws air into the lower third of the lungs. That stimulates and engages the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” mode) which calms and relaxes us while also, importantly, strengthening the lungs.

Breathing deeply from the diaphragm reduces the stress and causes the body to relax by slowing the heart rate and stabilizing blood pressure. Lengthening the exhale sends a message to the brain that everything is okay, even when the stress continues and the mind is filled with anxiety provoking thoughts. Therein lies the power of diaphragmatic or deep breathing.

Sometimes just taking a few deep breaths before entering a stressful situation or when you find yourself in the middle of one can lower stress and anxiety levels.

Benefits of Breathing Correctly

Deep breathing is a skill that needs to be practiced. A regular, consistent, daily practice of deep breathing may ultimately create more optimal breathing patterns and develop a relaxed and calmer mind-set.

Understanding exactly how we breathe and actually practicing breathing provides many benefits.

  • Relaxes and calms the mind
  • Improves critical thinking and decision making
  • Reduces stress , improvig emotional well-being
  • Heightens attention and awareness
  • Can lessen pain and discomfort, exacerbated by tension

Caregivers and Deep Breathing

While there are many important benefits of practicing deep or diaphragmatic breathing, two aspects are especially valuable for caregivers. First, the body will respond positively to deep breathing by reducing the physical processes associated with the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and shift instead into the parasympathetic response (“rest and digest”); slower, more controlled breathing, decreased heart rate, and less muscle tension. Second a deep breathing practice can be done any place, any time and by anybodyl

Final Word

While diaphragmatic or deep breathing has been shown to alleviate some anxiety, it is important to realize that panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and depression are mental health condition. These should always be assessed and treated by a licensed medical professional. If your anxiety feels out of control, affects your daily life, or simple relaxation techniques do not help, please contact your doctor or mental health professional.

Sources

The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid. George S. Everly & Jeffrey M. Lating, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2017

WebMD, Respiration System. Accessed: 4/14/2021

American Lung Association, How your lungs get the job done. Accessed: 4/14/2021

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, How the Lungs Work. Accessed: 4/14/2021

Mayo Clinic, Diaphragmatic Breathing. Accessed: 4/14/2021