SIMPLY PAYING ATTENTION to your breath for a few minutes can soothe your nerves and over time lead to better mental health. Specific breathing patterns have been shown to treat symptoms from nausea to allergies and anxiety, facilitate other treatments like psychotherapy and improve your feelings about yourself.
For me, the best all-around pattern is “mindful breathing” (see posts on mindfulness and meditation). Simply pay attention to your breath as you inhale, taking in fresh air from the outside world; and as you exhale, releasing any toxins from your body. While sitting or standing, mindful breathing can calm your mind, help you relax and get you ready for the next activity. Done lying down, it’s a surefire way to fall asleep for a quick mid-afternoon nap or for the entire night.
Healthy participants in a German study were instructed to pay attention to breathing without letting their minds wander during 18-minute periods. Those who could “sustain mindful contact with their breathing” reported fewer symptoms of depression, including negative thinking and rumination. Dysfunctional rumination is a “central risk factor for depression,” says study author Jan Burg. Some participants who at first had a hard time keeping their minds from wandering became more adept with practice. “Once you have the hang of it, even a few minutes of mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected,” according to Tori Rodriguez in Scientific American Mind.
In Japanese research, subjects learned simply to breathe deeply into their abdomens. After doing this for 20 minutes, they experienced fewer negative feelings as well as increased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in their blood and of oxygenated hemoglobin levels in their prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention, according to Rodriguez.
“Increased bonding, connectedness and capacity to feel love” are benefits of “coherent breathing,” according to the pattern’s developers, New York psychiatrists Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbag. To do coherent breathing, count six seconds for the inhalation and six for the exhalation, for a total of five complete breaths per minute. You can find CDs and apps that provide chimes to help time the breaths at Coherence.com, Heart Rate+ and on Amazon.
Coherent breathing affects the vagus nerve, the main pathway in the brain of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps us relax and rest by slowing the heart rate, constricting the pupils of the eyes, etc. (As one component of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary activity that regulates the body’s organs, the PNS is complementary to the sympathetic nervous system, which revs us up for fight or flight.) Activating the vagus nerve is best known as the “relaxation response.”
Before each breath, Drs. Brown and Gerbag suggest moving your shoulders up and then easing them down. As you inhale, gently round your shoulders up, and then gently back down as you exhale. Because the vagus nerve regulates emotions involved in empathy, gut instincts and perception, according to Dr. Brown, “you need it to have a good time.”
“You can consciously tap the power of your vagus nerve to create inner calm on demand,” writes Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today. Deep diaphragmatic breathing with a long, slow exhale “is key to stimulating the vagal nerve.” Anxiety before giving a speech or having blood drawn can be exacerbated by a fight-or-flight reaction: “all the symptoms of performance anxiety — racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, upset stomach, shakiness — are the result of your vagus nerve disengaging,” Bergland writes.
Good vagal tone in well-conditioned athletes is due to aerobic breathing and linked to slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and psychological well-being, according to Bergland. Poor vagal tone, on the other hand, is linked to “inflammation, negative moods, loneliness and heart attacks.” Most of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve serve to communicate information from the body’s organs to the brain, Bergland points out, so that when people say ‘trust your gut’ they are …saying, ‘trust your vagus nerve,’ that is, the emotional intuitions that the gut is sending to your brain.”
To activate the vagus nerve, breathe more slowly, breathe more deeply from the belly and exhale longer than you inhale, advises Stanley Guan’s health website. A useful tip: “Exhaling through your mouth instead of your nose makes breathing a conscious process” rather than an unconscious one. Studies on Tibetan monks have shown that deep breathing improved memory, lowered blood pressure, boosted the immune system and could fight depression.
Just as breathing exercises have been used by cancer patients to shift their focus away from pain, it can be used when pain is anticipated, such as when blood is about to be drawn. “Pain imagery breathing” is one technique suggested by Leslie Goldman’s “Benefits of Breathing Breath Exercises” on the Oprah website. Pain causes us to hold our breath, which can lead to the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, and can in turn contribute to inflammation which makes the pain worse.
To breathe using this technique, close your eyes, picture your body relaxing. Take a deep breath with air going into your belly and “visualize oxygen filling any areas of tension with comfort and calm. Then picture the pain leaving with each exhalation,” advises Chicago psychologist Michael Merrill. “The longer you exhale, the more you stimulate the vagus nerve…telling it you’re in a safe environment.”
“Grounding Breathing,” used for chemotherapy patients and pregnant women, can ease nausea by suppressing the gag reflex. To try it, “visualize walking barefoot down a long stone staircase. Inhale slowly through the nose for four counts while focusing on how cool the stones feel. Then exhale for eight to 10 counts through pursed lips as you imagine taking a step down,” Goldman suggests.
— Mary Carpenter[subscribe2]