When you breathe in, your diaphragm (the dome-shaped sheet of muscle beneath our rib cage which is largely responsible for breathing) contracts and moves downwards, allowing the lungs to expand fully and draw in air. Then, as we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards, forcing air back out of the lungs.
Whether you realise it or not, when you feel stressed or anxious, you will typically take shorter, shallower breaths; preventing your lung cells from becoming fully oxygenated. This can also happen when we wear clothes that are too tight, have poor posture, or have health conditions that weaken the muscles involved in breathing.
Shallow breathing is known as chest breathing because it doesn’t allow your diaphragm to contract or relax fully. When this happens, you may notice that only your chest rises and falls, but not your belly. Chest breathing reduces the quality of our oxygen exchange and keeps the body tense. It happens when we feel stressed or anxious, but can exacerbate the issue and be responsible for anxiety, fatigue, panic attacks, and a rise in blood pressure.
Conversely, by countering these short, shallow breaths with long, deep ones, we can trick our bodies into reversing its feelings of anxiety, leaving us feeling soothed and calm.