Mind-Body Series: Diaphragmatic and Abdominal Self Release Techniques
Here on the blog, we’ve previously talked about the importance of integrating somatic practices into our journey towards wellness. Understanding the mind and body connection can be incredibly helpful for individuals who experience physical symptoms of emotional distress. This is a common experience for those that have experienced trauma. This blog is the third in a series where we will go over some specific exercises that can be used to release tension or pain and increase awareness of how the body is connected to certain thoughts, behaviors, trauma responses, and beliefs. To this point, we’ve covered the eyes, face, scalp, mouth and jaw, as well as the neck, throat and chest segments of the body. We’ve also written in more detail about how traumas and negative beliefs manifest as physical tension, pain, and numbness. Today, we are focusing on exercises for opening the diaphragmatic and abdominal segments of the body.
Always keep in mind that the following practices can be deeply supportive when engaging in any somatic practice:
Mindful breathing: Find a comfortable seated or lying position, and simply take deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. As you inhale, imagine the breath expanding the chest and filling the lungs. As you exhale, imagine the tension leaving your body.
Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body. Start with the feet and work your way up the body, tensing each muscle group for a few seconds before releasing the tension. This can help release tension throughout the body.
Gentle movement: Try gentle stretches, yoga, or even just shaking out your limbs to release physical tension.
Journaling: Journaling can be a helpful way to explore and process emotions that may be contributing to tension. Try to write down your thoughts and feelings without judgment, and to explore any emotions that may be coming up.
The diaphragm is a broad, flat, sheetlike muscle that originates at the rib cage and attaches to the spinal column. One of its primary functions is to support breathing, and as such the muscle is relatively resistant to change. Because of this and the emotional significance of the diaphragm, deep blocks are very common. Certain types of yoga and breathing techniques, such as those taught to professional wind instrument musicians, can armor the diaphragm.
The good news is that, because its function is both automatic and controllable, the diaphragm is the best access for influencing the autonomic nervous system through breath and movement. Many techniques, such as yoga and breathwork, offer a way to transform diaphragmatic blocks.
The diaphragm holds down “gut” feelings in the belly and sexual feelings in the pelvis, creating the split between the heart and pelvis (loving and sexual feelings). Someone with blockages in this area may struggle with intimacy in which loving and sexual feelings can be felt together. People experiencing this might hold their breath and tighten their diaphragm. While this can help lower or eliminate uncomfortable feelings, this holding pattern causes other discomfort such as pain and nausea. This is especially true when repeated over time, as emotions that are not dealt with become internalized and create stress.
It is also common for people to hold their breath during sex. They push down with their diaphragm to force a release, or they pull their diaphragm up, trying to refrain from release. Ironically, this reduces erotic charge and can dull the sensations in the body, as it causes a holding in the pelvis. When the diaphragm moves without restriction, the body awakens, and thus is more open to pleasure.
Diaphragm Release Techniques
The “Ah” Breath also known as the “sounding breath.” This exercise is meant to be soothing and calming. If you feel any discomfort or strain, adjust the intensity of the sound or take a break. It's important to listen to your body and find a level of sound production that feels comfortable for you.
Find a comfortable position: Sit in a chair with your back straight, or you can choose to lie down on your back if that's more comfortable for you. Ensure that your body is relaxed and free from any unnecessary tension.
Relax your facial muscles: Soften your jaw, let your tongue rest gently on the floor of your mouth, and allow your facial muscles to relax. This will help facilitate the sound production during the "ah" breath.
Take a deep inhale: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Feel your belly expand as you fill your lungs with air. Allow the breath to be smooth and natural, without forcing or straining.
Begin the exhale with the "ah" sound: As you start to exhale, open your mouth slightly and create the "ah" sound by releasing the air through your vocal cords. The sound should be gentle and relaxed, resembling the sound you make when saying "ah" in a contented or relieved manner.
Sustain the "ah" sound: Continue producing the "ah" sound throughout the entire exhale. Feel the vibration and resonance of the sound in your throat and chest. Try to keep the sound consistent and even without any breaks or interruptions.
Empty your lungs completely: Exhale fully until your lungs feel empty. Allow the breath to leave your body effortlessly and naturally. Focus on the sensation of releasing tension and stress with each "ah" sound.
Pause briefly: After the exhale, take a brief pause before beginning the next breath cycle. This pause allows you to observe any sensations, relax further, and prepare for the next "ah" breath.
Repeat the process: Continue with this rhythmic pattern.Let each breath cycle flow seamlessly into the next, maintaining a steady and relaxed pace.
Practice for a desired duration: You can practice the "ah" breath for a few minutes to start and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable. Aim for at least 5-10 minutes of continuous practice.
Alternate Sympathetic (Up-Regulating) and Parasympathetic (Down-Regulating) Breathing. The breath exercise we are referring to involves alternating between up-regulating chest breaths through the mouth that are fast, shallow, loud and heavy and down-regulating abdominal breaths through the nose that are slow, deep, quiet and light to stimulate both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Putting these breaths together helps to create balance in the nervous system. For more information on how and why to use sympathetic breathing please watch this video or watch this video on parasympathetic down regulating breathing.
Remember to listen to your body and adjust the intensity of the breaths to your comfort level. If you feel lightheaded or uncomfortable, slow down the pace or take a break. Practice this breathing exercise for a few minutes initially, and you can gradually increase the duration as you become more familiar with the technique. Here's a step-by-step guide:
Find a comfortable position: Sit in a chair with your back straight or lie down on your back, whichever is more comfortable for you. Make sure your body is relaxed and free from unnecessary tension.
Upper chest breaths or panting breaths:
Open your mouth slightly.
Inhale quickly and deeply through your mouth, focusing on filling your upper chest with air. Allow your chest and shoulders to rise as you take in the breath.
Exhale quickly and forcefully through your mouth, emptying your lungs completely. Feel your chest and shoulders lower as you release the breath.
Repeat this upper chest breath for 5+ times, maintaining a quick and forceful rhythm. Stop if you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded. As you build up tolerance for more oxygen in the body you’ll be able to increase the number of breaths up to 60-100 in one sitting.
Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose.
Inhale slowly and deeply, focusing on filling your abdomen with air. Feel your belly rise and expand as you take in the breath.
Exhale gently and fully through your nose, allowing your belly to fall naturally as you release the breath.
Repeat this abdominal breath 2+ times, maintaining a slow and relaxed rhythm.
Here’s a video demonstration of how to do deep belly breathing.
Alternate between upper chest and abdominal breaths:
Now, alternate between the upper chest breaths and abdominal breaths. Inhale quickly and deeply through your mouth for the upper chest breaths, and exhale forcefully through your mouth. Then, close your mouth and inhale slowly through your nose for the abdominal breath, and exhale gently through your nose.
Repeat this alternating pattern, going back and forth between upper chest breaths and abdominal breaths - continue this cycle for the desired duration of your practice.
Focus on the sympathetic and parasympathetic response:
As you take the upper chest breaths, notice how it may create a sense of alertness and activation in your body. This is associated with the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response.
As you take the abdominal breaths, observe how it may promote relaxation and a sense of calm. This is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "rest-and-digest" response.
By alternating between these breath patterns, you stimulate both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, creating a balance and promoting overall well-being.
Barrel Exercise using a foam roller can help stretch and open the diaphragm, promoting better breathing and releasing tension in the chest and upper body. It's important to listen to your body and adjust the pressure and intensity of the rolling according to your comfort level. If you experience any pain or discomfort, discontinue the exercise and consult with a healthcare professional. Here's a step-by-step guide:
Set up the foam roller: Place the foam roller on the floor horizontally. Ensure that it's long enough to support your entire back from the base of your skull to your tailbone.
Lie down on the foam roller: Sit at one end of the foam roller, then gently lower yourself onto it, allowing your head and upper back to rest comfortably on the roller (the roller should be placed across your shoulder blades and not along your spine). Your knees should be bent, feet flat on the floor.
Position your arms overhead: Extend your arms straight above your head, allowing them to rest on the floor. Your palms can face up or down, whichever feels more comfortable for you. This position helps open up the chest and diaphragm.
Engage your core: Activate your core muscles by gently drawing your belly button toward your spine. This will help stabilize your body as you move on the foam roller.
Begin rolling back and forth: Start by pressing your feet into the floor and slightly lift your hips off the ground. Use your feet and legs to initiate the movement as you roll the foam roller up and down over your upper and middle back. Keep your arms overhead throughout the movement. If it’s comfortable you can roll down the tailbone area. Repeat this rocking motion up and down several times.
Focus on your breath: As you roll back and forth, pay attention to your breath. Take slow, deep breaths, allowing your abdomen to expand fully as you inhale and contract naturally as you exhale. This encourages relaxation and helps further open the diaphragm.
Adjust the pressure: If you feel any discomfort or excessive pressure, you can modify the intensity by adjusting your body position. You can place your feet closer or farther away from the foam roller to control the pressure on your back.
Explore different areas: While rolling, you can explore different areas along your upper back by shifting your weight slightly to one side or the other. This can help target specific areas that feel tight or tense.
End with a gentle stretch: After you've completed several rolls back and forth, bring your arms down to your sides and slowly slide off the foam roller. Take a moment to lie flat on your back and relax, allowing your body to integrate the effects of the exercise.
The abdominal segment runs from the diaphragm to the pelvis. It is a very vulnerable and unprotected segment. Many emotions are stored here, and to avoid feeling uncomfortable in times of stress, people often tighten these muscles. The primary muscle, the rectus abdominus, should be released in a kneading manner rather than with deep pressure, because of the vital organs beneath. Don't forget that the other side of the abdomen is the back Tightening on one side will affect the other.
Techniques for Abdominal Release
Belly Breathing. Also known as diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing, can help open the abdomen, promote relaxation, and increase oxygen intake. Remember, belly breathing should feel natural and relaxing. If you feel any dizziness or discomfort, return to your regular breathing pattern and consult with a healthcare professional if needed. With consistent practice, belly breathing can help you tap into a state of calm and relaxation while promoting a sense of openness in the abdomen. Here’s a video about how to take a proper deep breath and common belly breathing mistakes to avoid. Here's a step-by-step guide:
Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Ensure that your back is straight, allowing your body to be in a relaxed and natural alignment.
Gently rest your hands on your lower abdomen, just below your navel. Your fingertips can lightly touch each other or be separated—whichever feels more comfortable for you.
Relax your body: Take a moment to release any tension or tightness in your body. Soften your shoulders, jaw, and facial muscles. Allow your body to feel at ease.
Take a slow inhalation: Breathe in through your nose slowly and deeply. Focus on allowing the breath to expand your abdomen rather than your chest. Feel your belly rise and expand as you inhale.
Feel the movement under your hands: As you inhale, pay attention to the movement of your abdomen under your hands. Notice how it rises and expands as you take in the breath. Allow your hands to gently follow the movement.
Exhale gradually: Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth, whichever feels more comfortable. Feel your abdomen naturally fall and contract as you release the breath.
Observe the sensation: Notice the sensation of your hands resting on your belly and feeling the rise and fall with each breath. Pay attention to the warmth and movement that you can perceive in this area.
Continue the cycle: Repeat the slow inhalation and exhalation, focusing on the expansion and contraction of your abdomen. Allow each breath to be smooth and effortless.
Maintain a relaxed pace: Aim for a slow and comfortable pace while practicing belly breathing. Avoid any forceful or strained breaths. It's more important to focus on deepening your breath and relaxing your body.
Practice regularly: Engage in belly breathing for a few minutes each day to develop a habit and gain the benefits of the technique. As you become more familiar with the practice, you can gradually increase the duration of your sessions.
Pillow Breath Technique, also known as pillow belly breathing, is a modification to belly breathing and simply involves using a pillow to support and guide your breath into the belly, helping to open the abdomen and promote deep relaxation. Remember, the pillow breath technique should feel comfortable and relaxing. If you experience any discomfort or difficulty, adjust the pressure or find a different way to support your belly. With regular practice, pillow belly breathing can help you deepen your breath, open the abdomen, and promote a sense of calm and relaxation. Follow the steps above but, add these:
Grab a pillow: Place a pillow on your lap or hold it against your abdomen, hugging it gently. Choose a pillow that provides enough support but is also soft and comfortable to hold.
As you inhale, visualize your breath expanding your belly against the pillow. Feel the gentle pressure against your belly as it rises.
Coordinate your breath with the pillow: As you inhale, imagine that you are filling your belly like a balloon, pressing it gently against the pillow. Feel the contact and support of the pillow against your abdomen.
Focus on the sensations: Pay attention to the sensations in your body as you breathe. Notice the gentle pressure and support of the pillow against your abdomen. Observe how your breath interacts with the pillow and the feeling of expansion and release in your belly.
Belly Massage. Massaging your own belly can be a soothing and effective way to relax the muscles and promote digestion. Remember, if you experience any pain or discomfort during the self-massage, adjust the pressure or stop the massage altogether. This technique is generally safe and beneficial, but if you have any underlying medical conditions, it's always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before attempting self-massage. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to massage your own belly:
Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Make sure your body is relaxed, and your back is supported.
Warm-up your hands: Rub your hands together vigorously for a few seconds to warm them up. This helps create a more soothing and comforting touch.
Apply gentle pressure: Place your hands on your belly, palms facing down. Start by applying gentle and even pressure, using the whole surface area of your hands. Avoid pressing too hard or causing any discomfort.
Begin circular motions: With your hands resting on your belly, start making slow, circular motions in a clockwise direction. Use the pads of your fingers and palms to move in a smooth and gentle manner. The clockwise direction follows the natural flow of digestion.
Vary the pressure and speed: As you massage, you can vary the pressure and speed according to your comfort level. Some areas may benefit from lighter pressure, while others may respond better to slightly deeper pressure. Experiment to find what feels best for you.
Explore different areas: While massaging, explore different areas of your belly. Start with the lower abdomen, then gradually work your way up towards the upper abdomen. Pay attention to any areas that feel particularly tense or tight, and spend a little extra time on those spots especially if you feel any knots.
Take deep breaths: As you massage your belly, take slow, deep breaths. This can help further relax your muscles and deepen your sense of relaxation.
Focus on relaxation: Throughout the massage, focus on promoting relaxation in your belly. Imagine any tension or tightness melting away with each circular motion. Relax your abdominal muscles and allow the massage to bring a sense of calm.
Continue for a few minutes: Spend at least 5-10 minutes massaging your belly, or longer if you prefer. This will allow sufficient time to relax the muscles and enhance the overall effectiveness of the massage.
Conclude the massage: When you're ready to finish the massage, gradually reduce the pressure and slow down the circular motions. Take a few moments to rest your hands on your belly and feel the soothing sensation you've created.
Connecting to our somatic experience is a process. Always be gentle with yourself while also maintaining a sense of curiosity. It’s okay if certain exercises don’t resonate. Others will! You can also always discuss your experience of these techniques with your therapist - sometimes they can be surprisingly emotional! Somatic therapists can help us map and make sense of our physical blocks, inviting us to relate to them with more empathy and patience.Exploring the impact of abandonment, inundation, or codependency on the psyche may also support growth.
Author: Lindsay Rosser, LMFT #87065 - Lindsay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of WellBeings Therapy. She is a Certified EMDR and Integrative Body Psychotherapist who primarily works with adults who experienced complex trauma as a child. For more on Lindsay you can read her bio.
Editor: Mckenna Coffey, Pre-Licensed Therapist - Mckenna is a pre-licensed provider who joined WellBeings during her graduate studies at the University of Southern California. She is an integrative therapist with a trauma-focused, identity affirming, and sex positive practice. For more on Mckenna you can read her bio.
References and Book Recommendations
Jack Lee Rosenberg, Ph.D., Beverly Kitaen-Morse, Ph.D (1996). The Intimate Couple: Reaching New Levels of Sexual Excitement through Body Awakening and Relationship Renewal.
Hanna, T. (1988). Somatics: Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. This book explores the concept of somatics and offers various somatic exercises to release chronic muscle tension.
Selvam, R. (2022). The Somatic Therapy Workbook: Self-Guided Exercises for Trauma, PTSD, and Dissociation. While focusing on trauma and dissociation, this workbook provides somatic exercises and techniques to help release tension in the body.
Cooley, B. (2005). The Genius of Flexibility: The Smart Way to Stretch and Strengthen Your Body. Although not exclusively focused on somatics, this book presents innovative techniques for improving flexibility and range of motion through a combination of stretching and movement.