Focused Abdominal Breathing to Reduce Pain and Anxiety

Woman meditating in open roomI almost always suggest to clients that they learn focused abdominal breathing and practice a minimum of 5 minutes every day; for the best results, I recommend they practice 20 or more minutes per day. Sometimes they look at me funny and ask “You mean all I have to do is just breathe and everything will be better?” I tell them that no, everything is not going to magically change to exactly what you want in life, but learning and practicing focused abdominal breathing every day WILL do this for you:

1) Special breathing techniques can help reduce physical pain. Often when people are in pain, they breathe in a very shallow, disordered pattern. They also may frequently hold their breath without even realizing it. These are mostly unconscious protective reactions to pain, but they can actually increase the level of pain. Several recent scientific studies have shown that breathing at a slower rate from the diaphragm can significantly reduce sensations of pain.

2) Breathing helps to properly balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body.  Breathing properly from the diaphragm will:
•    Fuel energy production
•    Improve focus and concentration
•    Increase relaxation and calmness
•    Reduce tension and anxiety
•    Eliminate toxins
•    Strengthen the immune system
•    Improve bowel function
•    Lower blood pressure
•    Increase metabolism, aiding in digestion and weight loss

On the other hand, not breathing correctly can cause problems for a number of systems in the body, including the immune, circulatory, endocrine, and nervous systems. Improper breathing can produce various symptoms including:
•    Difficulty focusing attention
•    Dizziness
•    Numbness
•    Anxiety
•    Chest pain
•    Digestive problems
•    Irritable bowel
•    Neck and shoulder pain

3) Breathing releases emotional energy that is trapped in the body. People with anxiety and/or depression are almost always (and I mean 99.9% of the time) either breathing very shallowly or frequently holding their breath. Holding the breath is one of the most common ways that people stop emotions from coming up (think about the last time you tried not to cry, feel afraid, or get angry). Once you hold in an emotion it stays trapped in your body, until you release it. Breathing allows stifled, buried emotions to finally start to surface and be released.

4) Breathing keeps you in the present moment, instead of the past or the future. People with depression are often stuck in thoughts about the past, and people with anxiety are stuck in thoughts about the future. When you’re concentrating on your breathing, you are paying attention to your body sensations, the sound of your breath, and the process of breathing, all of which are happening RIGHT NOW. When you’re paying full attention to RIGHT NOW, you take AWAY energy and attention from the thoughts about the past or future. When you bring your attention to NOW, you automatically feel calmer.

Using the breath is a way to learn how the body and mind are connected. This is why I teach proper breathing to clients. Thoughts are directly related to feelings in the body and likewise, body sensations give rise to thought patterns in the mind. Mind and body are in a constant dance of influence, and it is important for people to learn that they have more choice and control in the matter than they thought.

Basic Instructions for Focused Abdominal Breathing
More than likely, if you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or pain, you are breathing shallowly from your upper chest. You want to train yourself to breath from your diaphragm/abdomen. Although it’s most effective to have someone teach you the process in person, here are the basic steps:

1) Sit in a comfortable upright position with your back against your chair and your feet on the ground. Keep your back straight, but let your shoulders and the rest or your body be very relaxed.

2) Place your left hand on your abdomen. Imagine that the entire area from your lower abdomen up to your chest is one large, rectangular balloon. Now, start by exhaling as completely as possible. Empty out as much air as possible. Your left hand will move inwards as the “balloon” area deflates. Now, slowly and gently, inhale, imagining that you are filling the balloon starting from the bottom, all the way up to the top. When you are breathing correctly from your abdomen, your lower abdomen will inflate, followed by your chest expanding, and your left hand will be pushed outward. Your shoulders will not go up, they will stay in place. When you inhaled did your hand move? Or did your shoulders go up instead? If your shoulders rise up when you inhale, you are breathing from your upper chest. Exhale and try again. This type of breathing may take a little practice to get the flow going. Work on this step until you can fill and empty the “balloon” completely. Then add the next steps.

3) Now that you are breathing abdominally, relax into a natural breathing rate. Your body will take over the breathing and settle into its own rate and depth. Your job is to just observe your breathing. Focus your attention on the tip of your nose and intently notice the pressure, temperature, and sensations of the air passing in and out of your nose. If it helps you to focus, you may also silently say “breathing in” on your inhalation and “breathing out” on your exhalation. Do this focusing for 5 minutes a day to start with, and work up to 20 minutes or more per day.

4) During your focused breathing session, especially when you first start practicing, you will more than likely notice that you are thinking about something else other than breathing. Thoughts have intruded into your mind and distracted your attention. When this happens, try not to react with any emotion (such as frustration). Just gently and silently allow the thoughts to drift upwards far away in to the sky like a soap bubble and then turn your attention back to your breath. At first you will find yourself re-directing your attention many, many times each session. Over time you’ll be able to maintain focus on your breathing for longer and longer periods of time and it will get easier to let go of intruding thoughts. It will even become easier to let go of unhelpful thoughts you have during the rest of the day (such as disturbing thoughts of the past or worrisome thoughts of the future). The most important thing is to keep doing the focused breathing every day, no matter what.

Open, full, unrestricted, unobstructed breathing is very important for your physical, mental and emotional health. It is something simple that can make a very big difference in your life. There are many things in life that we have no control of, so doesn’t it make sense to do the things we can have some control over? You can actively affect your own physiology and mental/emotional state just by mastering the art of breathing, focusing, and being present.

Related articles:
Deep Breathing and Guided Imagery
Alcohol and Anxiety: Not As Helpful As You Think
Managing Your Moods Through Mindfulness

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Becki A. Hein, MS, LPC, Anxiety Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • mike

    August 20th, 2012 at 9:32 AM

    mom just turned 50 and she’s always in a constant state of worry.her breathing is bad to say the very least and although i did not possess all this knowledge and did not know the benefits of proper breathing,I always tell her to try and breathe in a better way.She is always huffing and puffing even though she has no respiratory problems.I am pretty sure it is due to her worrying about so many things.

    Thank you so much for this detailed explanation, I am going to print this right now and take it to her.

  • Mozell

    August 20th, 2012 at 10:49 AM

    This is bound to be a hard sell only because we have gotten so accustomed to allowing prescriptions do the ehaling for us instead of looking for ways to naturally heal ourselves. I have often heard people just beg for some kind of magic pill that will cure everything. Help them lose weight, make the heart healthy, control the diabetes and what they fail to realize is that with just a little hard work, all of those issues, and so many more could be alleviated if they would only put in the effort. Ah well, I guess that just goes to show just how lazy so many of us have become.

  • sam

    August 20th, 2012 at 4:15 PM

    who knew that breathing took such hard work! ;)

  • Puckett

    August 21st, 2012 at 5:00 AM

    I have tried this as a result of a recommendation from my massage therapist.
    I thought well, that’s an easy one, something I can do to take a little time out of my busy day and really relax and refocus.
    Not so much.
    I mean, when I try to block everything out and just focus on the breathing, I start thinking about more worries and problems than I had before!
    I have a hard time keeping my mind from racing, and have discovered that there are far more other ways of exercise that work better as stress relievers for me.

  • augusta

    August 21st, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    Looks like doing proper breathing exercises can be super beneficial but doing them wrong can bring on a whole bunch of health problems that I would rather not have! Guess that this is clearly a case that even with breathing, only practice and the ability to tune out everything else around you will make perfect!

  • Becki Hein

    August 28th, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    I’m so glad this information is useful for you. I hope your mom gives it a try. I tell people to practice every day, no matter how hard it is to stay focused, for at least 4 weeks. By then, the brain starts to get into new habits. But it’s kind of like emotional hygiene in that just like you brush your teeth every day to prevent decay, you do your focused breathing every day to calm and center yourself and release any emotional build up!

  • Becki Hein

    August 28th, 2012 at 2:23 PM

    Yes, it is a hard sell to some people. When they try it out in my office, they notice a difference in how they feel, but alot of times they haven’t made the committment to do ANYTHING IT TAKES to change how their brain works (and ie, how they feel). It does take effort and committment. Medication can be very helpful, but if a person never learns new habits or heals their issues, then it’s like taking a Tylenol everyday for a fever and never dealing with what is causing the fever!

  • Becki Hein

    August 28th, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    I’m glad that you have found effective ways to relieve your stress!
    Sounds like you experienced what everyone else experiences when they first start practicing focused breathing. You do become way more aware of thoughts going around in your head. The point is to re-focus on the physical sensation of breathing over, and over, and over, and over, and over again….until eventually your brain starts to let go of its racing habit. And with dedicated, committed practice, over time (weeks and months) it will happen. Your brain will learn to calm down and get grounded faster. But it does take time, just like learning a new language or a new physical skill like dancing takes time. You’re not going to be an expert at it in one week!

  • Becki Hein

    August 28th, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    @sam and augusta,
    Yes, and by practicing every day, you do get better at it and your brain does get better at being quiet and calm. The more you re-focus your attention on the physical sensations of breathing, the less attention you give the mental chatter. What you give attention to expands and what you take attention away from diminishes, so giving attention to your breathing helps you get better at it, and taking attention away from the thoughts actually makes them get smaller and weaker.

  • GraspingWellness

    June 9th, 2013 at 9:54 AM

    Show others your focused breathing routine without involving your thoughts of emotions. Inspire others and refine your own routine at GraspingWellness.

  • Simon

    May 16th, 2017 at 8:35 AM

    I have been trying abdominal breathing for a month or so now, and I believe it is beneficial, but I am wondering how long it takes to get ‘used to it’.
    I have been chest breathing for years (possibly 10 or so) and I find that at the sternum and side of the lower ribs I often get some little aches and pains and I think this is due to finally actually using my diaghpram correctly. Lying down it is easier than standing or sitting, but what are your thoughts on how long it takes to get used to this, and is it possible to push your stomach out ‘too far’ in terms of breathing so that it causes unnecessary pain (especially when you are standing)?


  • Rebecca Hein

    May 16th, 2017 at 1:54 PM

    I think it is possible to “try too hard” and overextend your abdomen. After you get familiar with the
    sensations of abdominal breathing, try to let your body decide what size breath to take. In normal breathing, nonexertion, your abdomen will only go out a little bit. Thanks for your comment!

  • melchor

    November 1st, 2017 at 3:00 AM

    Thanks for this post I have just found. Looks very helpful, I will try it!

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