Controlled Breathing Helps Relieve Stress and Anxiety
Controlled breathing, or pranayama as its known in the practice of yoga, is a central part of many ancient traditions.
Yogic breathing exercises are described in an ancient Tamil script called Thirumanthiram and breath meditations have long been used in Buddhism as a way to help reach Enlightenment.
Modern research suggests the benefits of controlled breathing are real and may improve health conditions ranging from insomnia and anxiety to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression.
“Breathing is massively practical,” psychologist Belisa Vranich, PhD., author of the book “Breathe,” told the NY-Ts “It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”
In a preliminary study presented in May 2016 at the International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health in Las Vegas, NV, researchers found 12 weeks of daily yoga and controlled breathing improved symptoms of depression similar to using an antidepressant.
Not only did the participants’ symptoms of depression significantly decrease but their levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a calming neurotransmitter, simultaneously increased.
Equally interesting is research published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which found that breathing exercises lowered levels of salivary cytokines associated with inflammation and stress in a group of healthy volunteers.
Controlled breathing exercises have abeen found to modify stress coping behaviors and initiate appropriate balance in cardiac autonomic tone, which is a term that describes your heart’s ability to respond to and recover from stressors.
In a BMC journal study, breathing exercises called Sudarshan Kriya (SK) were used to relieve stress and anxiety. SK is a type of rhythmic breathing used during the practice of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY). Such breathing practices range from slow and calming to rapid and stimulating.
For instance, during SKY you may engage in ujjayi breathing, which is slow breathing of three cycles per minute, followed by bhastrika, or rapid exhalation at 20 to 30 cycles per minute, followed by SK, which is breathing in a slow, medium and fast cycles.
According to the International Journal of Yoga: “There is mounting evidence to suggest that SKY can be a beneficial, low-risk [and] low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.”
The breathing exercises are said to help balance your autonomic nervous system and influence psychologic and stress-related disorders through a number of mechanisms, including:
- Increased parasympathetic drive
- Calming of stress response systems
- Neuroendocrine release of hormones
- Thalamic generators
- Lowered Blood Pressure, Brain Growth and Other Remarkable Benefits of Controlled Breathing
Beyond stress and anxiety relief, “Studies have demonstrated that SK can play an important role in promoting a healthy lifestyle by improving immunity, antioxidant status, hormonal status and brain functioning,” according to research published in the journal Advances in Mind-Body Medicine.1
Another study in the World Journal of Clinical Cases concluded SK and other breath-based medication sequences have “the potential to help develop an individual’s self-awareness and support better integration of the brain (i.e., mind) with other organ systems (i.e., body) for enhanced human performance.”
More specifically, research suggests that harnessing the timing and depth of your breath may lead to the following:
- Lowered blood pressure and heart rate, including lowering blood pressure in people with hypertension16
- An increase in brain size when used along with meditation
- Immune support, by altering the expression of genes involved in immune function
Controlling anxiety and quelling panic attacks is one of the areas where controlled breathing can be quite useful.
The following breathing technique helps retain and gently accumulate carbon dioxide, leading to calmer breathing, and reduces anxiety.
In other words, the urge to breathe will decline as you go into a more relaxed state:
- Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
- Then hold your nose for 5 secs in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
- Breathe normally for 10 secs
- Repeat the sequence
The average person takes about 20,000 breaths a day, and the vast majority of people do not give them much thought.
But, breathing yields incredible power over our health, as it supplies your body with oxygen and removes excess CO2 (carbon dioxide) to keep us alive.
And, when harnessed correctly, breathing can do far more than supply our cells with O2 (oxygen).
The way we breathe, whether fast or slow, shallow or deep sends messages to the body that affect your mood, your stress levels and even the immune system.
I learned about this 17 years ago, and made it a part of my daily life.
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Breathe, Live lively.