This is the first skill that I teach to nearly all of my clients. I encourage everyone to try it! It is quite surprising how such a simple change can frequently make a big difference. It can help facilitate sleep, can refocus attention, can lower anxiety, and a slew of other beneficial effects. Best of all, its free, easy to do and you have literally nothing to lose and so much to gain! Most of my clients are pretty surprised that I recommend changes in their breathing as a remedy for anxiety, depression, insomnia, and a slew of other disorders--I mean its something we all do every day, all the time! The way we typically breathe, however, is what I call "survival breathing". We are only taking in enough oxygen to survive. So, if you want to thrive, we need to change it up!
When I teach this skill to little kids, we lay on the floor because its easier to see and feel the process when you're laying down. If you're watching my YouTube video of this, I encourage you to lay down on the floor or on a bed or couch. Of course, it also works great sitting up like I do in my video. You can also do it while standing!
The idea is to imagine a balloon in your stomach, just below your rib cage. If you imagine air going into a balloon, it expands. So, when we breathe in through our nose, imagine the air going down, past the chest and into that balloon, expanding it. I use my muscles to really push out my belly and make my balloon as big as I can get it. You want to try not to lift your shoulders and only expand your chest once your abdominal region is full. Once you've got a nice, full balloon, hold the breath for a few seconds and then allow the air to escape in a controlled way, slowly deflating the balloon.
As you learn this skill, start with counting in for four seconds as you inhale, hold the breath for a count of five and release the air for six or more counts. As you practice this skill, you can slow the breathing even further, breathing in for a count of 5 or 6 (or more), holding for 6 or 7, and exhaling for 7, 8, 9... The slower you go, the more relaxation you should experience.
So as you can see, there is a lot going on with abdominal breathing but you will quickly find that its much easier to do than it sounds--once you realize its kind of opposite to the way we normally think of taking a "deep breath" (when we prepare to blow out birthday candles or something like that). In fact, I say the hardest thing about abdominal breathing is REMEMBERING to do abdominal breathing. In session, I give my clients a little reminder which is just a photocopy from a book that they can refer to in case they forget how to do it and I tell them to put it on their pillow when they get home from session--then, go about your day and proceed to forget all about it. When you get ready for bed, the idea is that you'll see the paper and say "oh yeah, I gotta do that!" then you can move the paper to your nightstand, do your breathing, enjoy a peaceful night of sleep and in the morning, perhaps try to do another session of abdominal breathing before you get out of bed. Then, put the paper back on your pillow for the next evening. Make yourself a reminder with a post-it note or something similar.
The more times during the day you can practice the skill, the more useful it becomes. I like to pair it with something I do throughout the day anyway. I try to drink water throughout the day so whenever I take a sip of water, I try to do an abdominal breath. Just one or two. I find it focuses me and gives me just a moment to come back to the present. When you're practicing the skill, its great if you can spend at least a minute or two doing the breathing but if you can't manage even that long (re-evaluate your schedule!) at least aim for a minimum of three abdominal breaths. I think its kind of the minimum amount to start the brain releasing those "calm down" chemicals that facilitate relaxation. Its also a great skill to use when you find yourself awake at 2am and struggling to get back to sleep. Doing it then may help you to calm your mind (because you're giving it something to do) and the breathing is also calming your body down so you may find yourself back to sleep pretty quickly.
To make it even easier for you to try abdominal breathing (quite possibly my favorite of all the skills) I've imbeded my YouTube video right here so you can watch it now! Try it!