When experiencing stress reactions or pain, relaxation is essential for helping your body cope.
“Proper, deep breathing is perhaps the easiest and most important first step to help your body relax,” said Ted Gallup, Missouri Baptist Medical Center physical therapist. To help manage their pain and reduce stress, Ted has integrated deep breathing technique into his patients’ recovery plans and also recommends the technique to people of all ages for relaxation.
“Belly, or diaphragmatic, breathing is the proper deep-breathing technique that involves the diaphragm, the umbrella-shaped muscle between the chest and abdomen,” Ted described.
Many times when people are in pain or feel stress, they don’t know that their breathing patterns change. They often hold their breath for short periods or take quick, shallow breaths from the chest rather than from the diaphragm. Shallow breathing can trigger increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, muscle tension, and the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream.
“This is the fight-or-flight response that is the body’s way of protecting itself and usually passes once the stress is over,” Ted said. He explained that when people experience pain and stress for long periods, their bodies work in overdrive, leaving them vulnerable to chronic conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease.
A Breathing Exercise to Try
With shoulders relaxed, stand or sit up straight or lie on your back. For comfort, place a bolster, or pillow, under the knees when lying on your back.
Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. When sitting or standing, place both hands on your stomach. Close your eyes and imagine being at a favorite, peaceful place.
Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose to the count of four or five, focusing on the air entering the nostrils. Make sure that the hand on your stomach– not on your chest – rises when you inhale.
Breathe out through your nose to the count of four or five to fully empty your lungs. During this step, visualize pushing your belly button to your spine.
Repeat six times as needed or until you feel relaxed.
While this short exercise can be practiced most places whenever necessary, Ted also recommends integrating longer breathing sessions upon waking and before sleeping.
“This breathing technique is useful for relaxation in the morning to prepare for the day and at night when unwinding for bed,” he said. “Gradually increase the exercise time to five to ten minutes during these periods to get the best benefit.”