Have you ever felt stressed or overwhelmed—and then become completely annoyed when somebody chimed in with, “Hey, just take a deep breath.” Today, you’re going to learn about a very underused yet extremely powerful tool called soft-belly breathing. I didn’t learn about this in medical school. In medical school I learned about the science of the body and of the lungs, but I learned on a practical level how I could use soft-belly breathing to decrease my stress levels in my everyday life.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about how this works. First of all, every day we talk in short sentences without barely taking in a breath. For example,
“Hey, could you get me this?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there in ten.”
“Sorry about that.”
We might only be using a small portion of our lungs to say those types of things. Now, in reality, our lungs are much bigger than that—they actually take up as much of the space in our chest as our rib cage does. Take a moment to feel the outline of your rib cage because that’s how big your lungs are.
Where does the best oxygen exchange occur? At the base of our lungs. So when you’re running around and you’re too busy, you are not using your lungs in a way that they can best serve you and get oxygen to your brain for creative thinking.
I saw this in the hospital with patients. They would come in afraid. Many of them, thought they might die. They were so worried about their symptoms that, in their anxiety, they would do something I refer to as anxiety breathing or panic breathing. They would take a deep breath in and contract every part of their rib cage. Then, as they exhaled, they would let it all out.
“Yeah, doc. I am breathing see?” they would say. Then they would start getting really lightheaded and even more worried and more panicked.
I would sit down next to them and teach them what I’m about to teach you in five simple steps. When you feel that stress response happening, in any situation or any time you start to feel uncomfortable in your body, you can use this tool. You’re going to know how to manage yourself, manage your emotions.
Instead of panic breathing, which most people do, or stopping breathing, which is another typical response, this is what you’ll do.
- Sit down, and allow gravity to bring your shoulders down.
- Place your hand on your abdomen.
- Relax your belly. Allow your belly to be soft because when your belly is soft, the rest of your muscles relax. Take a nice deep breath in and you’re going to completely fill your lungs with air—so much so that your hand moves outward.
- Exhale, and your belly button is going to move back toward your spine.
- Repeat step 1−4 three times, letting your hand move out and then exhale where your hand and your belly button move back toward your spine.
Now take a moment to notice how you feel. There might be a shift in your body, you might just notice the sense of calm, or you may not have noticed anything. You might want to try a few more breaths.
This simple tool works because when you take that nice deep breath, it forces your diaphragm (an umbrella shaped muscle that’s just below your lungs and above your stomach) to flatten, which triggers something called your vagus nerve that then slows down your heart rate and relaxes you.
And for those of you saying, “I don’t have time to take three soft breaths,” I want you to know is you still have to breathe. All it takes is your attention and awareness. I promise you it’s going to ground you.
You can use soft belly breathing anytime, not just in crisis situations. The next time you’re in a conversation, a meeting, or heavy traffic, consciously take a few deep breaths and notice how it helps you relax and think more clearly. Once you learn to activate your pause button with soft-belly breathing, you’ll better manage yourself and your everyday interactions with others.
Your Awareness Prescription for Soft-Belly Breathing
- Let gravity pull your shoulders down.
- Place the palm of your hand on your relaxed belly.
- Slowly and deeply inhale, allow your abdomen to expand, and notice the hand on your abdomen moving outward.
- As you exhale, move your belly button back toward your spine and notice your hand moving inward.
- Repeat three times, and pay attention to any shifts in your body and your level of relaxation.
Here’s to slowing down in order to speed up,