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Kevlar for the Mind: Breathing your way to less stress

Jan. 10, 2013 - 04:56PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 10, 2013 - 04:56PM  |  
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Serving in the military is stressful, and each day is filled with new challenges. Over time, this lifestyle takes a toll on both mind and body. To combat the strain, it's important to have some psychological tools in your arsenal. One such tool is diaphragmatic breathing.

Breathing is a natural and automatic process. In any given day, the average person takes around 20,000 breaths (and considerably more on days of physical training). That's more than 1˝ million breaths in a lifetime.

But there's a difference between breathing to live and breathing to relax.

Most of us are chest breathers. When we inhale, the force of our breath is concentrated in our chest cavity. Chest breathing is an inefficient way to breathe because it doesn't fully use the lungs, which results in less oxygen and nutrients being delivered to the body.

This shallow breathing also leads to an imbalance in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, which causes or worsens stress.

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is a much more efficient way to transfer oxygen and nutrients to the system.

Becoming a diaphragmatic breather is easy. It involves a few simple steps and requires only minor changes to your daily routine. The key is to practice the breathing exercise for 15 minutes at least three times a day.

If you follow the steps below, within a couple of weeks you will have trained your body to breathe at a higher level without even knowing it.

1. Find a quiet and comfortable place where you can sit and are guaranteed not to be disturbed for 15 minutes — on a chair or couch at home, in your office/cubicle, or in your car.

2. Sitting comfortably with your legs, shoulders, neck and head relaxed, place your left hand on your upper chest and your right hand on your stomach. You may find the exercise easier if you are slumped slightly as opposed to sitting fully upright.

3. Slowly inhale through your nose while consciously making your stomach expand. You should feel the hand on your stomach rise, while the hand on your chest remains still. If you notice that the hand on your chest still moves, continue to focus on making your stomach rise with each inhalation.

4. Slowly exhale through your mouth while tightening your stomach muscles as your stomach returns to its resting point. You should feel the hand on your stomach fall and the hand on your chest remain still.

5. Repeat this process for 15 minutes at a rate of about five to six full cycles per minute.

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and is the author of "Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment." Email kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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