One group of muscles that commonly tenses in response to stress are those located in the wall of your abdomen. When your abdominal muscles are tight, they push against your diaphragm as it extends downward to initiate each breath. This pushing action restricts the amount of air you take in and forces the air you do inhale to remain in the top part of your lungs.
If your breathing is high and shallow, you’ll probably feel as though you aren’t getting enough oxygen. This is stressful and sets off mental alarms that you are in danger. To make up for the lack of air, instead of relaxing your abdominal muscles and taking deeper breaths, you may take quick, shallow breaths. This shallow, rapid breathing can lead you to hyperventilate—one of the prime causes of panic.
Abdominal breathing reverses this process by relaxing the muscles that press against your diaphragm and slowing your breath rate. Three or four deep abdominal breaths can be an almost instant relaxer. Abdominal breathing is usually easy to learn. Practice the following exercise for about ten minutes to acquire this simple but extremely effective skill:
1. Lie down and close your eyes. Take a moment to notice the sensations in your body, particularly where your body is holding any tension. Take several breaths and see what you notice about the quality of your breathing. Where is your breath centered? Are your lungs expanding fully? Does your chest move in and out when you breathe? Does your abdomen? Do both?
2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, right below your waist. As you breathe in, imagine that you’re sending your breath as far down into your body as it will go. Feel your lungs expand as they fill up with air. As you do this, the hand on your chest should remain fairly still, and the hand on your abdomen should rise and fall with each breath. If you have difficulty getting the hand on your abdomen to move, or if both hands are moving, try gently pressing down with the hand on your abdomen. As you breathe, direct the air so it pushes up against the pressure of your hand, forcing it to rise.
3. Continue to gently breathe in and out. Let your breath find its own pace. If your breathing feels unnatural or forced in any way, just maintain your awareness of that sensation as you breathe in and out. Eventually any straining or unnaturalness should ease up by itself.
4. After breathing deeply for several breaths, begin to count each time you exhale. After ten exhalations, start the count over with one. When thoughts intrude and you lose track of the number you are on, simply return your attention to the exercise and start counting again from one. Continue counting your breaths for ten minutes, with some awareness devoted to ensuring that the hand on your abdomen continues to rise with each breath.