An old adage from the theatre, to wit, is, “in life, one of the few things you can control is your breath.”
Breathing is essential to life, and understanding the role it plays in not only our physical health but our mental health as well is important. Breathing comes effortlessly to most of us, but there are powerful benefits to incorporating breathing into a mindfulness-based approach to mental health, brain health, and wellbeing in general. When was the last time you stopped what you were doing, and focused upon your full breath? Doing just that more often has significant benefits beyond the obvious one, which is to keep us alive….
Among other benefits, deep breathing exercises have been demonstrated to:
Improve cardiac health
Fight cognitive decline
Treating breathing as an ingredient for better mental and physical health is just the beginning of new trends in psychological therapeutics that combine Western and Eastern strategies. These schools of thought, when blended, can promote powerful improvements in patient outcomes. They can be used by parents with their children, teachers with their students, and for you to use on your own.
Conscious breathing reduces anxiety among healthy individuals.
Coordinated breathing exercises are known to improve feelings of well-being, but the exact mechanisms underlying this phenomenon were -- until recently -- based on anecdotal evidence. A recent study found that pranayamic breathing exercises reduced subjective feelings of anxiety among medical students compared to yoga alone.
In practice, breath control as a treatment has been recommended for at-risk groups such as patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Mind-body practices that include deep breathing are associated with better outcomes in these individuals. This discovery is promising as it confirms the crucial role of mindfulness and deep breathing in individualized treatment plans.
The exact circuits upon which this technique operates are hypothesized to be related to the parasympathetic nervous system activating in response to coordinated (voluntary) focus on internal bodily states. There are also theories related to olfactory bulb stimulation tuning the rest of the cortical mantle, engaged through this deep breathing.
More recently, reviews of research that focus on bridging the gap between breathing and reduced levels of anxiety point to the growing role of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve acts a mediator of the parasympathetic nervous system and possible axis for signal exchange between the brain and gut. Vagal nerve stimulation by way of deep breathing has been shown as a proposed mechanism that explains how the CNS and PNS induce relaxation and improved mood. The vagus nerve interfaces with a multitude of viscera across the body and brain, and its ability to settle sympathetic arousal should be looked at more closely.
Breathing techniques improve heart health
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and it is implicated in numerous disorders of the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease. Keeping your heart healthy is a balancing act between eating healthfully, exercising regularly, socializing regularly, avoiding smoking, and even deep breathing.
Let’s take a step back for a minute; deep breathing itself is alleged to be a secondary preventative measure that leads to better mental health. By improving mental health, we reduce blood pressure and incidence of depression and anxiety, all of which are established risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, as deep breathing and meditative techniques reduce these risk factors, overall health improves across both the mental and physical spectrums.
In combination with pranayamic yoga -- which introduces an exercise component -- has been shown to immediately reduce resting blood pressure and promote feelings of relaxation. With the added benefits of better mental health, this accessible form of deep breathing exercise may become a valuable prescription from providers for patients working to heal their cardiovascular disease.
Breathing exercises improve cognition
Learning new skills and keeping the mind active are known preventative measures to fight cognitive decline; sensory stimulation, as well as social stimulation, are key components of aging well cognitively. Thus, any measure that promotes better learning and memory encoding is one the field needs to consider.
By now, you should already know that I’m going to talk about the power of deep breathing on doing exactly this. Deep breathing has been shown to enhance the acquisition of motor skills, creating an interesting mediating effect that marries cognitive function to memory consolidation.
Long term, the use of coordinated deep breathing techniques are known to improve the quality of one’s sleep. Sleep is a key part of cognitive development and maintenance throughout life, as numerous investigations have shown clear links between dementia risk and poor quality sleep. One of the most effective pranayamic breathing exercises popularized by clinicians includes the 4-5-8 breathing technique developed by Dr. Andrew Weil.
This technique is accessible, and that’s part of its power. Find a comfortable position for your body. Relax your shoulders, and let your feet rest comfortably. Allow the air to effortlessly be released from your lungs. Then…
Inhale deeply for 4 seconds
Hold for 5 seconds
Exhale out of the mouth in a steady breath for 8 seconds
It is based on the idea of maximizing the oxygen in our systems and exerting a top-down executive control over our physical state.
These few techniques only scratch the surface of the power of deep, aware breathing to change our lives. As a preventative measure, breathwork has the potential to be a flexible, easy, and effective way to reduce risk across life for numerous physical and psychological issues, and it’s a natural tool you have access to every moment of every day.