Sunday, April 18, 2021

Using a Passive Exhalation, Where the Diaphragm Goes Limp, Will Help You Become Calmer

In this post I want to encourage you to brace your breathing musculature less. We all hold these muscles tense while breathing. This bracing is exhausting, unhealthy, and it compounds the stress response. It can be a huge relief to let this completely unnecessary tension go, and the best way to start is by relaxing the muscles of respiration during the outbreath.

The inbreath requires muscular contraction, but the outbreath does not. There is no reason for muscular exertion during exhalation; the positive pressure of air within your lungs is enough to create the force. The air naturally wants to be pressed out by the structures in your thorax like a balloon that is deflating. It takes energy for us to get air into a balloon, but it takes no energy to get the air out. The balloon deflates all by itself. It is the same with your lungs. Unfortunately, many people tense the breathing muscles during the exhalation, and this traps them in a state of fight or flight. Stopping this requires awareness and practice.

To perform the passive exhalation all you need to do is let your breathing go limp while you are exhaling. You should actually be able to feel the diaphragm relax. The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle that sits above the stomach and below the lungs. 

Focus on the word limp. Imagine that the bottom has fallen out from under your outbreath. There should be nothing holding it up. You should find that your face calms, your shoulders descend, and your whole body relaxes. Moreover, your anxiety will disappear, and your social composure will go through the roof. The more often you practice these passive exhalations the better acquainted you will become with your bracing patterns. Gradually over time you will tense these muscles less and less, and you will exhale passively by default. Over the course of a few days a sense of irritation in your chest will dissipate. This irritating feeling is caused by muscular overload, trigger points, and inflammation in the muscles. When the pain is totally gone, you will feel unburdened, less neurotic, and more content. 

To get a better idea of what is going on, try the following. Open and close your hand four times. Now try to open and close it four more times, but with lots of tension in the hand. Turn your hand into a stiff claw while you do it. This is how most people breathe. All traumatized mammals breathe this way. Needless tension in the diaphragm is a core symptom of trauma. This tensity is avoidable and superfluous. Now open and close you hand four more times with as little tension as possible. This is how you want to breathe.

The way most people exhale is very uptight and neurotic. It’s like gripping a toothbrush with all your might as you try to brush your teeth. It is also like trailing a toddler with your arms out worried that the toddler may trip and fall. Most of us breathe this way. We breathe in suspense because we are worried something is about to go drastically wrong. Bracing the breathing muscles gives us a sense that we are prepared for the worst and makes us feel like we are being vigilant. But because doing it all the time is unhealthy, we must surrender this defensive breathing habit.

Here are three few techniques that can help you get a feel for the process of passive exhalation. 1) Take a deep inhalation before you perform a passive exhalation because there will be more air to passively release. It gives you more time to sense how the relaxed descent of the diaphragm should to feel. 2) You can similarly prolong the process by exhaling through your nose. 3) Take a deep breath and then hold it. As you hold it try and let the turmoil in your diaphragm settle. Then when you feel settled let the air out (my mother recommended this).

During a conversation about this, my mother asked me if a passive exhale gets enough of the air out of the lungs. It does. She also asked me if active exhalations are bad and whether or not we should use them too. It is helpful to occasionally use active exhalations. Joseph Pilates recommended that we breathe out very intensely and try to get all of the air out of the lungs as if we were wringing out a wet towel. This is very useful but we can’t do it all day long. Practiced just a few times a day, it will help to provide exercise for the diaphragm which will allow it to relax further so that the default exhalations can be even more passive. Just a few minutes per day of braced exhalation is fine. It is when it goes on for hours that it become deleterious. The sad fact is that most adults do not experience exhalations that are not braced.

So why is braced breathing in our nature? Why don’t we exhale passively all the time? Well, we did as very young children, and we do when we are calm. You will find that you exhale more passively while being massaged, when you are unburdened or relieved by something that happens, or when you feel joy, love, or gratitude. But life stress insidiously undermines the passive exhalation and makes us hold the exhalation tightly. Don’t hold it, let it drop. Let it freefall. Let the air ooze out of your nostrils all on its own.

When you start exhaling passively it might make you feel guilty. At first, my mom felt like she was not being vigilant enough. She felt that she might make a mistake or miss an opportunity. When I started exhaling passively, I felt like I was being disrespectful to others. In unbracing the exhale you may feel vulnerable, defenseless, or exposed. You may also feel like you are being rude, too calm, or like you are trying to flaunt your ability to relax. Recognize that these impressions are superstitious and self-defeating. We should never feel we need to manufacture tension and stress just to cope with life.

As you become more aware of the relaxed exhale as a phenomenon, you will realize that certain stimuli, people, places, and type of threats cause you to brace your diaphragm more than others. These things will grab hold of your diaphragm and make it tense. Pay special attention to what kinds of things have this effect on you and teach yourself to allow yourself to remain calm even in their presence.

A passive exhale is generally slower than a braced exhale. It takes more time for the air to come out if you are not pushing it out. This is great because extending the exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve and the resting and digesting branch of the autonomic nervous system. However, it is still totally possible to have a very long exhale (5 to 20 seconds) while still bracing the diaphragm. It’s not the length of time that makes the difference, it’s the intensity of unnecessary muscular contraction.

Keep in mind that your inhalation is also braced; it is just much harder to notice. The exhalation can occur with absolutely no muscular contraction. This is not true of the inhalation. An inhalation requires work because the contraction of the diaphragm down into the gut creates a vacuum to make room for air to be drawn into the lungs. But this contraction is happening with too much force, like the opening of a tightly braced hand. As you learn to find, map, and understand your diaphragmatic tension during the exhale, this will help you to become aware of how it effects your inhale. Over the course of a few weeks, you should be able to teach yourself how to lessen the unnecessary tension occurring during the inbreath. Your breathing will become much more efficient and less labored. You will be “breathing easy.” 

You should also notice that when your exhalation happens passively, it reaches a point where it slows and then stops on its own. This is where your diaphragm would rest if you were dead. When the diaphragm is braced, you usually exhale to a point either above or below this baseline. Instead, as you near the end of the exhalation, the diaphragm should slowly deaccelerate as it reaches this central resting point. The end of the exhalation should be so faint that it almost feels like a brief pause, and it should last one to two seconds. When this happens, you know you have stopped bracing your diaphragm.

Breathing is Sisyphean labor. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a man who was condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill. As soon as he got the giant rock to the top, it would roll back down. He spent eternity doing this, and it is considered a tragedy. Now, imagine that Sisyphus did not let the boulder roll down the hill. Imagine that he unnecessarily lowered it down using his hands, step by step at great effort. If this were the case then the poor guy would REALLY never have a chance to rest. Right? So, when you keep your diaphragm braced during your exhalation you are depriving it of rest.

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Albert Camus

All of the body’s muscles need brief respites during which they can stop contracting. If there are no short periods of inactivity, they cannot regenerate properly. When this happens, muscles enter a state of hypertonia (too much tone) in which they cannot heal. Many of the muscles of our body just need a second or two to rest, and this is called a microbreak. Your breathing muscles need a microbreak, and you should give it to them. Whenever you can tell that you are not exhaling passively, imagine letting go of the boulder and letting it roll down the hill on its own. Let’s discuss one more analogy just to drive this home.  

Imagine driving a car up and down a hill. The hill is not very steep. It has a very minimal incline, so it’s easy to drive up. The road is also completely straight so you don’t have to worry about turning the wheel. Now, imagine that for some reason you are responsible for driving it up and down, over and over again. For a while you keep the engine on during the descent. But since the descent lasts for a few minutes, you realize that you can turn the engine off and put the car into neutral and just let it coast without having to touch the brake, the accelerator, or the wheel. This is what a passive exhalation should feel like. After you finish your inhale, just take the keys out of the ignition.

Let everything in your chest go limp during your exhales and give your breathing muscles the microbreak they need to relax and regenerate.


The passive exhale is just one of eight tenets of optimal breathing that I discuss as part of the Program Peace self-care system. Here are the others:


The Eight Tenets of Peaceful Breathing


1)     Breathe deeply (high volume): Breathe more fully, breathing all the way in and out.

2)     Breathe longer (low frequency): Breathe on longer intervals where each breath lasts for more time.

3)     Breathe smoothly (continuous flow): Breathe at a steady, slow, constant rate.

4)     Breathe assertively (confident): Do not let social concerns or stressors conflict with the other rules.

5)     Exhale passively: Allow your breathing muscles to go limp during each exhalation.

6)     Breathe nasally: Breathe through the nose with nostrils flared.

7)     Ocean’s Breath: Relax the back of your throat and breathe as if you are fogging up a glass.

8)     Pure of Heart: Knowing that you have only the best intentions will help you breathe easy.



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Last week I was with a very mentally ill man over a long weekend. He is an old friend, who is also a criminal, a belligerent street fighter, and is now homeless. He tricked my roommate into letting him stay with us. Just being with him was so trying that I was forced to develop the passive exhalation method outlined above. I had started to practice passive exhalations, but the experience with him helped me to learn to do it socially and learn to do it even under stress.

Two other friends who spent a couple of hours with us that weekend described the ordeal as extremely upsetting. One friend said that the man was demonic and that he acted like the energizer bunny from hell. The other friend said that the experience was excruciating and that the man berated and tortured us the entire time. This is how they described being with the guy for two hours. I was with him for 72 hours.

He is physically imposing. His voice is deeper than any I have heard. He yells all day, and his voice is just as deep the next day. He was binge drinking and taking mushrooms. He tried to fight 15 different large strangers in the street yelling profane language at them. Not wanting to fight, each one of them eventually hung their heads and walked away. One group of men took him up on his invitations to fight and he beat them up and left them on the concrete. He started shouting obscenities at my neighbor, a seventy-year-old lady next door. He did the same to my other neighbor. The threats and violence were indiscriminate. He got out of the passenger seat of my car at a red light and, while yelling incoherently, and tried to pull the eighty-year-old couple in front of us out of their Mercedes. Right after that, he tried to fight a sixty-year-old man at the gas station. In another instance, I watched him make a grown man cry. He continually insulted me in the worst possible ways. He threatened to kill me, my roommate, our common friends, and to destroy our house.

It was a whirlwind weekend and as I was trying to put out the fires that he was creating, I was also trying to reign in the panic in my chest. At a certain point I became so aware of the tension in my diaphragm that it was easy to let it go. It felt very dangerous at first to let this happen. When he saw me become calmer and calmer in front of his eyes, he realized that his actions had no control over me, and his chaotic behavior slowly improved. As my composure grew, my voice deepened, and I became unperturbable. By the end of that Sunday, he was back to being a more normal person.  I recount this story to show that passive exhalation can completely change your reaction to trauma. This can in turn, profoundly influence others for the better.

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