Are you aware of how much your breathing affects your mental health? I mean really breathing, the focused, conscious type of breathing, not the unconscious I need to breathe to survive type breathing…
Do you hate it when you are in a state of high anxiety or stress, and someone says “just breathe” – well there maybe a little more to it from a scientific point of view.
There are parts of our body we have no control over, like our heart beating, because our brain controls it all and it happens very unconsciously. To a certain extent breathing fits into that category, as we need to breathe to survive right. The difference is, when we start to focus on our breathing we can start to take over the controls and affect the way we breathe; fast, slow, shallow, deeply, or not at all, holding our breath for long periods (unless of course we hold it so long we pass out in which case unconscious breathing will take over again).
Consciously changing how we breathe, affects the body on a deeper level. Science has proven that when we change the way we breathe, certain things happen. For example, there is a full oxygen exchange – more oxygen enters the body, and more carbon dioxide leaves the body.
In the 70s Dr Herbert Benson claimed that conscious / controlled breathing triggered our parasympathetic nervous system. This countered our fight or flight responses to daily stressors (aka our sympathetic nervous system). Scientific research has since backed this up further.
Since then, people like Dr Andrew Weil have been teaching breathing techniques such as 4-7-8, where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7 and exhale for 8. Nasal and mouth breathing can make a difference too. Inhale through your nose, and exhale using your mouth.
One of my personal favourite breathing techniques comes from Hawaii. I learnt this technique whilst spending some time on Kauai with the elders on a spiritual quest run by Serge Kahili King. The technique is called Piko Piko an can be found in the Little Pink Book of Aloha.
5 reasons you should give either technique a go, according to science:
1. Managing stress – conscious breathing helps to keep our stress levels in check by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
2. Managing anxiety – conscious breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn releases a neurotransmitter responsible for decreasing feelings of anxiety, lowering heart rate, and possibly assisting with depression, even for those resistant to anti-depressant medication.
3. Managing heart rates and blood pressure – if practised consistently, thanks to the vagus nerve, as mentioned above, using breathing techniques regularly can assist with lowering blood pressure and heart rates, which in turn helps reduce the risks associated with strokes and aneurysms.
4. Managing brain growth – interestingly, when used for meditation, conscious breathing has been proven to assist with brain growth, particularly in areas associated with sensory processing. This is great news for older generations where the brain is at risk of thinning grey matter.
5. Managing health – Benson also proved that controlled breathing had an effect on a genetic level, improving immunity, insulin production and metabolism.
So you see, there is breathing and breathing, choose a technique that works for you and keep practising…
Recommended reading: Dr Benson – “The Relaxation Response” & Serge Kahili King – “Little Pink Book of Aloha”
“Practicing regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.”
Andrew Weil, M.D.