Proper breathing goes by many names. You may have heard it called diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully ﬁlls your lungs, and you will notice that your lower belly rises. The ability to breathe so deeply and powerfully is not limited to a select few. This skill is inborn but often lies dormant. Reawakening it allows you to tap one of your body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms.
Why does breathing deeply seem unnatural to many of us? One reason may be that our culture often rewards us for stiﬂing strong emotions. What happens when you hold back tears, stiﬂe anger during a charged confrontation, tiptoe through a fearful situation, or try to keep pain at bay?
Unconsciously, you hold your breath or breathe irregularly. The act of breathing engages the diaphragm, a strong sheet of muscle that divides your chest from your abdomen. As you breathe in, your diaphragm drops downward, pulling your lungs with it and pressing against abdominal organs to make room for your lungs to expand as they ﬁll with air. As you breathe out, the diaphragm presses back upward against your lungs, helping to expel carbon dioxide.
Your sympathetic nerve system (ﬁght or ﬂight) is suppressed by the expansion of your lungs during inhalation and the parasympathetic nerve system (rest, heal, digest) is enhanced during exhalation as blood returns from your lungs to your body. By slowing your respiratory rate, you allow more time for your body to emphasize self-regulation. And by emphasizing the exhalation you increase the amount of rest/heal/digest activity.
The sum total of slow, deep breathing results in a relative increase in parasympathetic activity. In fact, high parasympathetic tone has been associated with happiness, resilience in the face of stress, and childhood cognitive performance.