What Is Deep Breathing and Why Practice It?

What Is Deep Breathing and Why Practice It?

Nick Heath, PhD Nick Heath, PhD
4 minute read

Deep breathing is one of the most utilized methods of stress reduction. It comes up constantly in wellness activities like yoga, chi gong, and meditation, as well as when a good friend is trying to help you cope with difficult emotions.

It works, and everyone seems to know it works.

In this post, we’ll outline why it’s so helpful and (hopefully) encourage you to practice it more often.

Using the Diaphragm as a Connection to Calm

A “deep breath” is not a big, loud, shoulder-moving breath, as we often think of it. It should actually be quiet and effortless most of the time. The defining characteristic of a deep breath is simply that it mainly uses the diaphragm, which brings air deeper into the lungs.

The diaphragm is our main breathing muscle. It is a dome-like muscle attached to your lower ribs. When it contracts (“flexes”), it pushes downward, which makes your belly move outward. This is why diaphragmatic breathing is often called “belly breathing.”

The diaphragm is arguably our most important muscle. But, for our purposes, what’s important to know is that the diaphragm is innervated by the vagus nerve, the primary nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) (the “rest-and-digest” branch of our autonomic nervous system). And critically, the vagus nerve mostly transmits signals from the body to the brain.

Thus, when we breathe deeply using our diaphragm, we directly communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. This sends signals of calm to the brain, which then re-transmits that message of safety back to the rest of the body. The result? Almost instant relaxation.

The Bottom of the Lungs Also Get More PNS Nerves

Along with the diaphragm getting a bigger supply of PNS nerves, the bottom of the lungs also gets more PNS nerves than the top. Here’s how Dr. Leah Lagos puts it, “It’s worth noting that the lower lungs are loaded with parasympathetic nerve receptors that, when stimulated through belly breathing, help spread a sense of calm throughout the body and mind. When you chest breathe, those lovely lower-lung receptors go untouched.”

Therefore, by breathing deeply, we can stimulate these nerves and spread feelings of calm throughout our bodies and minds.

The Shape of Your Lungs Plays a Role

There’s also an anatomical reason to breathe deeply: Your lungs get wider toward the bottom. This means there’s more surface area at the bottom of your lungs than at the top, which means more oxygen absorption, too. When we breathe deeply, we utilize this more extensive area and make each breath more efficient. More oxygen with less effort tells the brain that you are safe, again sending signals of calm throughout the body.

A Simple Exercise to Learn Deep Breathing

Let’s now look at how we can put this insight into action with a simple exercise you can use to learn how to breathe deeply:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

  2. Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest.

  3. Breathe softly and deeply through your nose, ensuring the hand on your abdomen moves while the one on your chest remains still. (Remember, this shouldn’t be a “big” breath, just a deep, relaxed one.)

  4. Exhale audibly through pursed lips, trying to ensure your exhalation is longer than your inhalation. (This is only for the exercise—your everyday breathing should be in-and-out through the nose.)

  5. Continue for at least 1-2 minutes, with 20 minutes a day being the ultimate goal.

Once this exercise is comfortable for you, feel free to transition to a seated position, adding some challenge and strengthening your diaphragm more.

With time and practice, deep, diaphragmatic breathing should become natural, effortless, and your default way of breathing. If you're having trouble controlling your breath or feeling like your breath is controlling you, resB Lung Support is a great holistic tool to get back on track. You can learn more at www.resbiotic.com.

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About the Author

Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.

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