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Abdominal breathing for relaxation


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Our breathing alters in pattern and rhythm at different times of the day and in different emotional states, for example sighing in despair, panting with exhaustion, holding our breath in fear and terror.

Breathing to control stress

Breathing can happen automatically without thinking about it, or we can alter it consciously and at will.

Because of this unique relationship between our thinking and bodily processes, our breathing pattern can change how much we are affected by stress.

By increasing our awareness about breathing and by practising breathing exercises it is possible to: 

  • improve our sense of well-being
  • decrease our level of stress
  • help to connect our minds and bodies

Types of breathing

There are two main types of breathing:

  • chest breathing
  • abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing

Chest breathing

This type of breathing is characterised by an upward and outward movement of the chest and is found most commonly during vigorous exercise, or emergency situations.

If we constantly use chest breathing, it can make the body tense, as if it is under stress. This is because the activated upper chest muscles increase feelings of anxiety.

Abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that separates our chest and abdomen.

When we breathe in the diaphragm tightens, flattens and moves down, sucking air into the lungs. As the diaphragm moves down, it pushes your tummy down, forcing it outwards.

When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes, air passes out of the lungs and your tummy flattens.

This type of breathing has 2 important effects on the body:

  1. It is relaxing compared to the ‘emergency mode’ breathing of the upper chest, which is a part of ‘fight or flight’ response to a stressful situation. 
  2. It is the way you breathe in 'regenerating processes' such as when you are asleep, digesting food or the body is at peace. You can see it in the way babies and children breathe.

Abdominal breathing is the most efficient and relaxed way of getting enough air into your lungs.

Breathing too quickly, too deeply or irregularly can result in unpleasant symptoms such as dizziness, faintness, headache, visual disturbance, tingling, chest pain, palpitations, sighing, yawning and excessive sniffing.

It can commonly become a cause of anxiety.

Abdominal breathing exercises

Find a quiet room where you will be undisturbed for about 10 to 15 minutes.

  1. Lie down on the bed or floor with a pillow under your knees. Undo tight clothing and remove your shoes. Spend a few moments settling yourself down.
  2. Close your eyes, spread your feet 12 to 18 inches apart, and check that your head, neck and spine are in a straight line.
  3. Focus your attention on your breathing. Do not try to change your breathing for the moment. Become aware of how fast or slow you are breathing, whether you are breathing with your chest or diaphragm. Notice whether there are any gaps or pauses between your inhalation or exhalation.
  4. Now, put one hand on your upper chest, and one hand on your tummy just below your rib cage. Relax the shoulders and hands. As you breathe in, allow the tummy to rise, and as you breathe out, allow the tummy to flatten. There should be little or no movement in the chest.
  5. Allow yourself a little time to get into a regular rhythm. It may help to imagine that as you are breathing in, you draw half a circle with your breath around your body, and as you breathe out, you complete the other half of the circle. Allow your breath to become smooth, easy and regular.
  6. Now, slow down your breathing out, then be conscious of a comfortable pause before allowing your breaths in to follow smoothly and easily. If any distractions, thoughts or worries come into your mind, allow them to come, then allow them to go, and bring your attention back to your breathing.
  7. When you are ready to end this exercise, take a few deeper breaths in. Bring some feeling back into your fingers and toes. Open your eyes slowly, and turn over onto one side before gently sitting up.



Ref number: 699/VER5

Date published: February 2019 | Review date: February 2022

© 2021 Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust

A list of sources is available on request


Where next?

 Contact us

For more information about using abdominal breathing please contact Occupational Therapy

Phone: 020 7188 4180
Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 4.30pm

Or the Cardiovascular Rehabilitation Team

Phone: 020 7188 0946 
Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

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