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How to Take a Deep Breath

Your secret weapon for beating stress.

Key points

  • Deep breathing is a great way to reduce the biological impact of stress on the body.
  • Most people don’t know how to do it correctly, but learning the skill isn’t hard when you know the secret.
  • Deep breathing can help a lot with gastrointestinal problems, including reflux and IBS.

Have you ever tried to “just take a deep breath” and found that it does absolutely nothing for you? Deep diaphragmatic breathing is truly one of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce the impact of stress on the body. Unfortunately, most people don’t know how to do it in a way that is actually helpful.

Try it right now—go ahead and “take a deep breath” and pay attention to what happens. If you’re like most people, you’ll find that your upper chest will inflate and rise and maybe your shoulders will also come up. You might notice tension in your shoulders and upper chest as well. This is what people typically do at the doctor’s office when the doctor wants to listen to their lungs. Ironically, this type of breath is actually a pretty shallow, thoracic (upper chest) breath, not a deep diaphragmatic (or belly) breath. And it definitely won’t make you feel more relaxed! In fact, it might well do the opposite.

Shallow thoracic breathing tends to activate the sympathetic flight-or-fight response. In other words, it may actually make you more stressed. True deep breathing does the opposite—it turns on parasympathetic rest and digest activity that reduces heart rate and blood pressure, suppresses adrenalin and cortisol, and turns off the body’s stress response. Plus, it relaxes muscles in the throat, stomach, and gut and helps reduce reflux, bloating, and cramping.

How to Do True Deep Breathing

Here’s how to do it. Stand up. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly just below your belly button. To identify the muscle you’re going to use, try tightening or sucking in your belly (as if you were in a swimsuit commercial) over and over rapidly about five or six times. You should start to feel a little muscle burn right under your rib cage. Got it? That’s your diaphragm.

Next, we’re going to exhale by contracting that muscle and tightening the belly. Imagine you’re trying to blow out a candle. In fact, hold a finger up in front of you about a foot away from your face and tighten your belly and blow a blast of air at your finger. You should feel the air move past your finger. Do it two or three times in a row.

Once you’ve got that down, I want you to pretend that you have to blow out all the candles on my next birthday cake. That’s a lot of candles (but I’m not going to tell you how many!). That means you need a really long, sustained exhale. Go ahead and try it. Let yourself take a little breath in, and then blow-blow-blow those candles out. When you’re done blowing out the candles, just relax and let the air pour back into your lungs naturally. Then try it again. Ideally, you want to be exhaling for six to eight seconds and then inhaling for five to seven seconds. You want the exhale to be longer than the inhale, and you want the whole breath cycle to take 10 to 15 seconds. This will give you a respiration rate of between four and six breaths per minute.

Simply trying to slow your breathing down to this pace will do wonders for turning off the stress response in your body. If you’re having trouble getting the hang of it, try lying down. I guarantee that your body knows how to do this—it’s how you breathe when you’re asleep. It just takes a little time to learn how to do it on purpose. You can also just focus on pacing your breathing to get yourself to a respiration rate of six breaths per minute or less.

Benefits for the Digestive Tract

Deep diaphragmatic breathing not only turns off the body’s stress response but also optimizes motility in the digestive tract. That’s especially good news for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). When your gut starts cramping, sometimes just two to four deep breaths can be enough to relax the motor muscles and get the cramping to ease up.

Another advantage of deep breathing is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, and no one needs to know you’re doing it. Try it when you’re stopped at a red light, or sitting on the train, or waiting in line. Try it in bed at night before going to sleep. Like any skill, using deep breathing to help you relax takes practice. Practice deep breathing three or four times a day for just a minute at a time (say four or five breaths) and you’ll get better and better at it, and it will be more helpful to you when you truly are stressed or are experiencing abdominal cramping and discomfort. Use this secret weapon to beat stress and your digestion will also improve!

References

Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., ... & Coco, M. (2017). The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences, 38(3), 451-458.

Jurek, M.K., Seavey, H., Guidry, M., Slomka E., & Hunter, S.D. (2022). The effects of slow deep breathing on microvascular and autonomic function and symptoms in adults with irritable bowel syndrome: A pilot study. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 34(5); e14275.

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