“Babies use diaphragmatic breathing. Somewhere along the way we develop bad habits that develop into thoracic breathing,” says Nathaly Shoua-Desmarais, a clinical psychologist and board-certified biofeedback specialist who heads the Medical Student Counseling and Wellness Center at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
Diaphragmatic vs Thoracic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing, also called deep or belly breathing, is done by contracting the diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs. It is more efficient than thoracic breathing, also called shallow or chest breathing, which uses the muscles in your upper chest.
“The misconception is the longer you suck in air the better, but it’s the longer exhalation that provides the most benefit,” says Shoua-Desmarais, who recommends inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds.
In biofeedback sessions offered at the Wellness Center, medical students are often amazed to see the actual physiological changes–increased blood flow to the brain and vital organs–that occur during their calm breathing exercises.
During one biofeedback session, Rehrer noticed that calm breathing increased the temperature in his hands; now he uses the technique to stay warm while studying for hours in the library, which he says can get chilly. He’s also become more mindful about his breathing in general, and especially before a tough test.
Change your breathing, change your life
Calm breathing, as the name implies, helps to calm and relax. Studies show it can reduce tension and anxiety, and improve concentration and memory—all of which are particularly helpful to students as a study aid and for test taking.
But if you decide to give calm breathing a shot, take it easy at first. “If you’ve been chest breathing for a good portion of your life and you suddenly tell your body, hey, let’s stretch out these lungs, you could feel dizzy or get a headache, even hyperventilate,” says Rivera. She suggests starting out with 5-minute breathing routines until your body adjusts.”
Soon enough, you’ll get the hang of it and begin to reap the benefits.
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