How to Do Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing for IBS

4 min read

Dr Melissa Hunt

Psychologist & Researcher at UPenn

Have you ever tried to “just take a deep breath” and found that it does absolutely nothing for you? Deep diaphragmatic breathing is truly one of easiest, most effective ways to reduce the impact of stress on the body.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know how to do it in a way that is actually helpful.

Try it right now – go ahead and “take a deep breath” and try to observe what you do. If you’re like most people, you’ll find that your upper chest will inflate and rise and maybe your shoulders will also come up. You might notice tension in your shoulders and upper chest as well. This is what people typically do at the doctor’s office when the doctor wants to listen to your lungs. Ironically, this type of breath is actually a pretty shallow, thoracic (upper chest) breath, NOT a deep diaphragmatic (or belly) breath. And it definitely won’t make you feel more relaxed! In fact, it might well do the opposite. Shallow thoracic breathing tends to activate the sympathetic flight or fight response. In other words, it may actually make youmore stressed.True deep breathing does the opposite – it turns on parasympathetic activity that reduces heart rate and blood pressure, suppresses adrenalin and cortisol, andturns off the body’s stress response.

Here’s how to do it.

  1. Stand up.
  2. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly just below your belly button. To identify the muscle you’re going to use, try tightening or sucking in your belly (as if you were in a swim suit commercial) over and over rapidly about 5-6 times. You should start to feel a little muscle burn right under your rib cage. Got it? That’s your diaphragm.
  3. Next, we’re going to exhale by contracting that muscle and tightening the belly. Imagine you’re trying to blow out a candle. In fact, hold a finger up in front of you about a foot away from your face and tighten your belly and blow a blast of air at your finger. You should feel the air move past your finger. Do it 2-3 times in a row.
  4. Once you’ve got that down, now I want you to pretend that you have to blow out all the candles on my next birthday cake. That’s alotof candles (but I’m not going to tell you how many!). That means you need a really long, sustained exhale. Go ahead and try it. Let yourself take a little breath in, and then blow blow blow those candles out.
  5. When you’re done blowing out the candles, just relax and let the air pour back into your lungs naturally. Then try it again. Ideally, you want to be exhaling for six to eight seconds and then inhaling for five to seven seconds. You want the exhale to be longer than the inhale, and you want the whole breath cycle to take 10-15 seconds. This will give you a respiration rate between 4 and 6 breaths per minute.

Simply trying to slow your breathing down to this pace will do wonders for turning off the stress response in your body.

If you’re having trouble getting the hang of it, try lying down. I guarantee that your body knows how to do this – it’s how you breathe when you’re asleep. It just takes a little time to learn how to do it on purpose. You can also just focus on pacing your breathing to get yourself to a respiration rate of 6 breaths per minute or less.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing not onlyturns offthe body’s stress response, it alsooptimizesmotility in the gut. That’s especially good news for people with IBS. When your gut starts cramping, sometimes just 2-4 deep breaths can be enough to relax the motor muscles and get the cramping to ease up. Another advantage of deep breathing is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, and no one needs to know you’re doing it. Try it when you’re stopped at a red light, or sitting on the train, or waiting in line. Try it in bed at night before going to sleep. Like any skill, using deep breathing to help you relax takes practice. Practice deep breathing three to four times a day for just a minute at time (say 4-5 breaths) and you’ll get better and better at it, and it will be more helpful to you when you truly are stressed or are experiencing abdominal cramping and discomfort.

Another way to manage the body’s stress response is toburn it off. To see an article on how to do that, click here.