By Stephen Mahoney, March 02 2018
As a singer, musician and meditator, I’ve been deep belly breathing for over 25 years and it has brought me tremendous benefits. As a consultant, I’ve helped countless clients get through corporate and personal issues using natural belly breathing principles. In my view, deep belly breathing is a fabulous happiness-making system. We all own it and can use it at will. Yet despite available research, most of us are still unaware of why and how it makes life so much better.
So, here’s my contribution to providing factual knowledge on the subject. It is my wish that it brings you and your loved ones the greatest benefits in whatever aspect of your life you choose to use it.
Benefits of deep belly breathing
Ever since the 60’s, research has been documenting how conscious belly breathing profoundly improves physical health, joy, emotional regulation, stress management, resilience, thinking skills and even effective communication.
As opposed to chest breathing, science shows that belly breathing leads to greater daily happiness, healthier social and family relationships and increased professional fulfilment. Clinical studies also mention belly breathing in relation to lower cortisol (the bad stress hormone), lower blood pressure, a lower risk of diabetes, cancer, heart failure and depression
Why does breathing have such a broad effect on us?
Triggering moods and thinking patterns
Brain cells are only 2% of our body mass, but they claim ¼ of our oxygen. So if there isn’t enough, our brain just can’t work right. Unknowingly, we’ll go for bad choices, prioritize upside down, miss out on important things, get caught up in negative thoughts patterns and so on. As a result we’ll get disappointed in ourselves and others, communicate poorly, suffer bad moods, headaches, etc.
This obviously makes life miserable, but we don’t necessarily realize how it happens. Sometimes a better life is really just a breath away!
Breathing is all about moving our muscles. Because it involves just about every muscle from the head to the pelvis, I’ve chosen to keep it very simple here by considering only the two main opposite breathing patterns. They are related to two opposed sets of feelings and we usually use a mix of the two :
* Chest breathing uses mainly the rib cage, shoulders and neck muscles. Chest breathing is related to feelings of threat, frustration, deprivation, and suffering. It’s our fight or flight mode. It shuts down the higher brain functions to fuel aggressive / defensive action such as avoiding, blaming, complaining, arguing or shouting. An extreme example would be fighting or running for our life.
* Belly breathing uses mainly the diaphragm, belly and pelvic muscles. It’s related to feelings of safety, pleasure and satisfaction. Belly breathing is a relaxed resting mode that allows us to rejuvenate, take pleasure in small things and share quality time with others. It brings oxygen to higher brain functions and empowers us with imagination, creative thinking, analyzing and problem solving.
In a nutshell, belly breathing relates to feeling awesome, empowered and creative. Chest breathing relates to feeling awful and being aggressive or defensive.
Depending on how we experience things in our life, our body will automatically blend the two breathing modes, or chose one over the other to trigger our reactions. That’s how nature designed us when we all lived in wild nakedness, many thousands of years ago. The problem for modern humans is that we’ve changed our life conditions in such a way that our biological response now often works against us.
Let’s look at it through a modern life example
Say we’re stuck in a traffic jam. We’re craving to get home and just chill out after a long day. Instead of that we’re stuck there against our will and we get stressed up. Science has shown that stress shuts down the blood supply of higher parts of our brain, responsible for calculation, imagination and self control. At the same time, it over fuels the most primitive parts, setting off our fight / flight programs and causing us to freak out. If we let it build up, we might even be harsh with someone we love later in the evening, making for a bad night as well.
Every time we get stressed, anxious, angry or depressed, we are chest breathing. It’s the natural pattern related to stress and trauma. Some people even get stuck in chest breathing all the time. It has become their permanent breathing mode, and they tend to feel bad on a daily basis. Chest breathing habits can come from sitting in a C shape, a lack of effective emotional regulation, traumatic events from the past, or most frequently a mix of all three.
When it happens to us, it’s often hard to make a conscious link between the way we breathe and the difficult things we’re experiencing in our daily life. Unfortunately this results in high cortisol (the bad stress hormone), excessive toxins and a failing immune system, paving the way for depression and degenerative illness. Negative thoughts and feelings are reinforced. It’s a vicious circle.
The good news is that we all have the power to improve the way we breathe.
Bringing out the very best in us
Deep belly breathing creates a direct channel to the subconscious mind.
We can make great use of that channel if we know how to! That’s why breathing is a key part of hypnosis, yoga, meditation, martial arts, and a number of other self improvement approaches. Breathing muscles are controlled by two separate nervous systems (conscious and unconscious). When we actively take charge of these muscles with our conscious mind, we override the automatic stress reaction.
By making a habit of this, we gently bring our entire brain-heart-body system back towards more pleasant and useful inner states. We restore harmony in our energy within. We allow ourselves to create better health, meaningful careers and deep relationships. It’s all linked together.
Deep belly breathing creates harmonious pressure waves throughout the entire body. Using many different muscle chains, these natural movements inside us balance and energize all vital organs and glands. Did you know our heart actually has a whole bunch of neurons inside it? And all the other vital organs have some too! Our intestines alone have as many neurons as a cat’s brain… maybe that’s why we sometimes get very physical gut feelings!
In all civilizations around the globe, the heart is the symbol of love, compassion and wisdom. Research from the Heart Math institute has proved that our heart sends more signals to our brain than our brain sends to our heart. Our heart has a very powerful impact on brain functions. These include emotions, attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving.
If chest breathing over stimulates the heart and causes our brain to freak out, deep belly breathing provides a gentle and profound massage that calms us down. It allows our heart, mind and body to communicate and balance their energy harmoniously. It gives us what we need to be smart and feel great. It brings out the very best in us. In turn, we can help bring out the best in others too.
It is my sincere hope that you’ve found some useful information in this article, may you bring out the very best in yourself and your loved ones!
Enjoy and share as you wish 🙂
Thinking fast and slow, Daniel Kahnman
L’intelligence du stress, Jacques fradin
Buddha’s brain, Rick Hanson & Richard Mendius
Respiration, anatomie du geste respiratoire : Blandine Calais-Germain
Chanter et parler avec tout son Corps : Bernard Dufour et Jacky Brun
Respire, la respiration totale pour tous : Roger Fiametti