The respiratory diaphragm is a dome or parachute shaped muscle that sits below the lungs, attaching to the sternum, lower ribs and even the vertebrae in the lumbar spine. As we breathe, the diaphragm contracts and draws down, allowing the lungs to expand with our inhalation. During the exhalation of our breath, the diaphragm relaxes, expanding back up into its dome shape as the lungs contract. 

So what is diaphragmatic breathing? Technically speaking, all breathing is diaphragmatic breathing, as all breathing patterns require the function of the respiratory diaphragm to some degree. However, the term ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ is usually used to describe the active and deliberate process of slowing the tempo of an individual’s breathing down and intentionally expanding the belly to increase the capacity of the lungs.

The deliberate process of slowing the tempo of the breath and increasing the volume of the air that is inhaled and exhaled increases the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed and therefore distributed around the body. The intentional control over the breath also helps to draw attention away from external stressors, acting as a distraction. This process has been associated with numerous psychological and physical benefits. 

These include:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Reduced depressive symptoms
  • Improved memory
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Increased attention

Diaphragmatic breathing is a common practice in physical activities such as yoga and many martial arts. It is also commonly used during meditation or progressive relaxation practices, as the attention on slowing the breathing facilitates the intense focus needed for these techniques. This breathing technique can also be used in the management of acute and chronic pain conditions; while it does not “fix” or completely remove the pain, it does help to distract the mind from the intensity of the pain and to slow down the increased cardiovascular and respiratory functions that usually occur during the experience of pain. While all respiration can be considered diaphragmatic, the deliberate process referred to as diaphragmatic breathing does have many benefits in the management of both physical and psychological stress.