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Alcohol and Mental Health

Diaphragmatic Breathing: Benefits and How To Practice

August 31, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 31, 2023
19 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
August 31, 2023
19 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
August 31, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
August 31, 2023
19 min read

Elena is a high-achieving lawyer who has always unwound with a glass of white wine at the end of a long day in court. She knows she can find better ways to relax, but the wine has become so habitual that she doesn’t even know where else to look. Then, a health seminar introduces her to the power of diaphragmatic breathing. Though initially skeptical, Elena decides to give it a shot. Within weeks, she finds herself reaching less for the wine bottle and more for a quiet corner to breathe. She feels the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing so strongly that she tells her friends and colleagues about it, prompting many to explore this transformative exercise.

Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Primer

It's interesting how the most basic actions in life, such as breathing, often carry the most profound benefits for our well-being.

At its core, diaphragmatic breathing contrasts with the short, quick breaths many of us adopt, especially during times of distress. Shallow breathing taps into only a fraction of our lung capacity, often leading to quicker fatigue and a sense of breathlessness. Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other hand, invites us to engage the diaphragm fully. This powerhouse of a muscle is delicately positioned below the lungs and plays a pivotal role in our respiratory health.

When we activate the diaphragm, we give our lungs the space they crave (and typically miss out on throughout the day). Such expansion equips the lungs to accommodate more air, and, therefore, more oxygen. Oxygen, as we well know, is the molecule that every cell in our body requires. It's the fuel that drives myriad physiological processes, ensuring we remain energetic and free from disease.

The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing also lie in its facilitation of waste elimination. As we take deeper exhalations, we get rid of more carbon dioxide, which is a byproduct of cellular metabolism. This meticulous balance—more oxygen in, more waste out—ensures our body functions optimally.

Diaphragmatic Breathing: Neurological Benefits

Beyond the evident respiratory perks, the diaphragmatic technique can bring about profound changes in the neurological realm. One of the beneficiaries of this breathing style is the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, threading its path from the brain through the neck and into the abdomen. It's an integral component of the parasympathetic nervous system, often labeled as the "rest and digest" system. While our sympathetic nervous system gears us for "fight or flight," its parasympathetic counterpart urges us to relax, rejuvenate, and restore.

Diaphragmatic breathing's role as a catalyst in this process is crucial. As we engage in deep, rhythmic breaths, we massage the organs, especially the digestive tract, where the vagus nerve is densely present. This gentle massage excites the vagus nerve, amplifying its signals. And one of the predominant messages it relays? Calm down!

Lehrer and Gevirtz (2014) elaborated on this phenomenon, showcasing how vagus nerve stimulation through practices like diaphragmatic breathing can significantly downregulate stress responses. When the vagus nerve fires up, it nudges the body to release acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that dampens the frantic activity of our sympathetic nervous system. The result? A significant drop in heart rate, smoother digestion, and an enveloping sense of serenity.

By choosing to shift from shallow breaths to deep, diaphragmatic ones, we can activate our body's inherent calming mechanism. We signal to our body that all is well, allowing it to transition from a state of high alert to one of tranquility. With every deep breath, we combat stress, anxiety, and unease, replacing them with calm, clarity, and centeredness. And this natural remedy can be harnessed anytime, anywhere.

Beating Alcohol Cravings Through Diaphragmatic Breathing

In today’s society, the allure of alcohol as a stress-reliever is undeniable. A glass of wine after a tiring day, a cold beer amidst a heated argument, or a shot of whiskey to drown our sorrows are all familiar scenarios. However, these seemingly benign acts, when repeated, can foster a dependence on alcohol to get through stress and challenging times And while alcohol might promise immediate relief, its aftereffects can amplify the very stressors we sought to evade. Interrupted sleep cycles, worsened anxiety, and even bouts of depression can all result due to excessive alcohol consumption.

Thankfully, diaphragmatic breathing can be a successful antidote when practiced regularly.

Cravings, especially as we first set out to change our drinking habits, can be overpowering. The intense need for a drink can cloud our judgment and reignite old patterns. Yet, the act of drawing a deep, diaphragmatic breath can serve as a powerful interrupter.

When faced with a craving, we can steer our mind away from the immediate desire by engaging the diaphragm and indulging in a series of deep breaths. This diversion isn’t just psychological. There's a physiological mechanism at play as well. As we discussed, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our body's natural relaxation response. Within moments, the heightened state of craving can subside, replaced by a sense of centered calmness. We can think of diaphragmatic breathing as hitting our internal reset button, offering the brain a chance to reconsider our choices.

Diaphragmatic Breathing: Additional Science-Backed Benefits

Enhanced Lung Capacity

Unlike shallow chest breathing, diaphragmatic breathing delves deep, making efficient use of the lungs' entire capacity. As we persistently engage in this technique, our lungs become accustomed to fuller expansions and contractions. This habitual deep breathing ensures that a more significant volume of fresh air enters the lungs, facilitating optimal gas exchange, which is an essential function of life.

Optimal Oxygenation

Each cell in our body relies on oxygen for fuel. By boosting our lung capacity, diaphragmatic breathing ensures that a rich supply of oxygen permeates every corner of our body. Cellular activity amplifies as a consequence of this enhanced oxygenation. The mitochondria, our cellular powerhouses, can produce more energy (in the form of ATP), resulting in an overall sense of vitality. This manifests as improved endurance, sustained stamina, and a consistent energy pool to draw from throughout the day.

Sharper Cognition

Our brain, despite accounting for just 2% of our body weight, consumes about 20% of the oxygen we breathe. Thus, it's evident that optimal brain function is closely tied to efficient oxygenation. As diaphragmatic breathing improves oxygen supply, it directly benefits cognitive processes, resulting in enhanced focus, sharper memory recall, quicker problem-solving skills, and a heightened ability to concentrate. Furthermore, this enriched oxygen supply also serves as a protective factor, potentially warding off cognitive decline as we age.

Stronger Immune Response

A well-oxygenated body provides an ideal environment for the immune system to thrive. Improved oxygenation aids in the efficient production and function of white blood cells, our body's primary defense mechanism against infections and foreign invaders. Additionally, a regular deep-breathing practice can also stimulate the lymphatic system, responsible for detoxifying the body and purging out waste products. This combination of enhanced defense and detoxification equips the body to better resist diseases and ensures a quicker recovery when we do fall ill.

Better Posture

At a glance, it might seem odd to associate breathing with posture. Yet, the two are intricately linked. Diaphragmatic breathing demands that the spine remains in a neutral, erect position to facilitate unrestricted movement of the diaphragm. Over time, as we practice this form of breathing, the body begins to naturally adopt a straighter stance. This habitual erect posture counters the all-too-common slouch that stems from prolonged sitting and screen time.

This posture refinement isn't merely cosmetic. A straight spine ensures that intervertebral discs, the cushioning pads between spinal bones, experience minimal undue pressure. It also optimizes nerve function, as the spinal cord remains unhindered. Furthermore, an erect posture promotes efficient organ function as it prevents the crowding of abdominal organs, allowing them to operate without constraints.

Mastering the Art of Diaphragmatic Breathing

In an era where quick fixes and instant gratifications dominate our landscape, diaphragmatic breathing is an age-old practice that promises. It's not a fancy meditation technique or an intricate yoga posture. It's simply about harnessing the power of our breath, a natural function we’ve been performing since birth but often overlooked.Here’s how we can make the most of this technique:

  • Finding comfort: Begin by finding a peaceful spot. Whether it’s a cozy corner in your living room or a quiet nook in the park, what matters is comfort. You can choose to sit or lie down, based on your preference. Ensure your back is straight and your limbs are relaxed.
  • Hand placement: This step is crucial for awareness. By placing one hand on the chest and the other on the abdomen, you can physically feel the breath's journey. This tactile feedback provides real-time insight into the depth and pace of your breaths.
  • The inhale: With closed eyes, breathe in gently through the nose. Let this inhalation be slow and controlled. As you breathe in, focus on allowing the abdomen to rise. This movement indicates that the diaphragm is engaged and pulling air into the lungs.
  • The exhale: Once the lungs are filled, transition to the exhale. You can choose to breathe out through the mouth or nose, based on what feels natural. Allow the abdomen to fall, signaling the release of air from the lungs.
  • Building rhythm: The key to diaphragmatic breathing is consistency. Gradually synchronize your inhalations and exhalations to create a rhythmic pattern. Over time, this pattern becomes second nature, but in the early stages, it's essential to remain attentive to the abdominal movements.

How To Integrate Diaphragmatic Breathing Into Daily Life

We don’t need to be in a quiet yoga studio in order to experience the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. It’s a technique that serves us well in any circumstance. Here are a few ways to take advantage of it in daily life:

  1. On the elevator: Gone are the days of absentminded phone scrolling. Elevator rides, brief as they may be, offer the perfect window for a couple of focused breaths. By the time you reach your floor, you’ll be noticeably more centered.
  2. Commercial break calm: Television commercials can be a source of both entertainment and irritation. Instead of channel hopping, consider these breaks as opportunities for mini relaxation sessions.
  3. Mid-report respite: Work-related stress is all too common. Amidst dense reports and endless paperwork, deliberately scheduling three diaphragmatic breathing breaks can rejuvenate the mind, boosting both productivity and mood.
  4. Traffic tranquility: Traffic jams can fray the calmest of nerves. Instead of succumbing to frustration, pivot your focus to breathing. Deep inhalations and exhalations can transform road rage into road relaxation. Of course, safety first: always ensure your primary attention remains on driving.
  5. Queue quietude: Long lines, whether at the bank or the coffee shop, can be monotonous. But with a shift in perspective, this waiting time morphs into a precious pause: perfect for some diaphragmatic breathing.
  6. Post-email peace: Emails, especially stressful ones, can elicit strong reactions. Instead of hastily moving to the next task, take a post-email breather. A few deep breaths can help reset the emotional barometer, readying you for what lies ahead.
  7. Before bed bliss: Sleep is sacred, and how we transition into it matters. Establish a nightly diaphragmatic breathing routine. Investing just five minutes before turning off the lights can be the bridge to a deep, restful slumber.

The Journey Ahead

Reducing our alcohol intake, especially alcohol consumption has been a long-standing coping mechanism, is incredibly challenging. The road will be riddled with temptations, setbacks, and moments of self-doubt. Yet, amidst this journey, tools like diaphragmatic breathing emerge as powerful allies. They remind us of the innate strengths we possess, strengths that lie just a breath away.

As more people embrace this technique, they don't merely swap a bottle for a breath; they exchange a fleeting escape for lasting peace. And in this trade, the real victor is holistic health, mindfulness, and the promise of a life lived fully, one breath at a time.

Summary FAQs

1. What is diaphragmatic breathing?

It's a deep breathing technique that focuses on engaging the diaphragm muscle, allowing the lungs to fully expand, resulting in effective oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release.

2. How does diaphragmatic breathing differ from regular breathing?

While regular breathing may often involve shallow inhalations using chest muscles, diaphragmatic breathing emphasizes deep breaths that make the abdomen rise and fall, indicating the diaphragm's activation.

3. How can I integrate diaphragmatic breathing into my daily routine?

You can weave it into mundane moments like elevator rides, commercial breaks, traffic halts, or while waiting in queues. Additionally, incorporate it into work breaks or as a nightly pre-sleep routine.

4. Do I need a specific setting to practice this type of breathing?

Not at all! While starting in a quiet spot can be beneficial, the adaptability of diaphragmatic breathing allows you to practice it anywhere, turning everyday situations into relaxation opportunities.

5. How can diaphragmatic breathing aid in stress management?

Engaging in this breathing technique can activate the body's restorative processes, making it a natural way to switch off stress alarms, rejuvenate the mind, and usher in tranquility.

6. Is there an ideal duration for each diaphragmatic breathing session?

The duration can vary based on the situation and personal comfort. Whether it's a brief minute during a commercial break or a dedicated five-minute session before bed, consistency and mindfulness are key.

7. Who can benefit from practicing diaphragmatic breathing?

Everyone! Whether you're navigating work-related stress, seeking relaxation methods, or merely wanting to enhance lung capacity and posture, diaphragmatic breathing offers wide-ranging benefits for all.

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