Within 10 seconds of being born, the shock of arriving in a new and unknown world caused your lungs to jump into action and you breathed for the first time.
And they have not stopped working since then, with an average of about 16 breaths per minute for an adult at rest, or 23,000 a day. At 30, you inhaled and exhaled approximately 250 million times.
You would think that, with all that practice, we are experts in breathing. What else can we learn about this very basic instinct?
The answer is “a lot”.
Recent scientific research shows that rapid, shallow, and unfocused breathing can contribute to a number of problems, including anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure.
Meanwhile, cultivating greater control over our lungs can bring many benefits to our physical and mental health.
Interestingly, scientists are discovering that a particular frequency of respiration, around six exhalations per minuteIt can be especially restorative, triggering a “relaxation response” in the brain and body.
In addition to inspiring life coaches (personal mentors) and gurus of the fitnessBreathing has also started to gain the attention of large corporations, who hope the practice can help staff focus their minds and cope with the daily stresses of their work.
“A ramp to relaxation”
Like the current fashion of the mindfullness (mindfulness), the breath has been inspired by the teachings of ancient texts, especially the Hindu and Vedic scriptures, who long extolled the importance of breath control through practices such as pranayama, yoga breathing exercises.
In fact, you may wonder if breathing exercises are simply another name for mindfulness, since many meditation courses encourage participants to focus their attention on their inhalation and exhalation.
Mindfulness, however, tends to involve passive observation – “watching the breath” – whereas breathing exercises require that actively change the way you breathe.
This includes making sure to breathe with your diaphragm (rather than the movement of your chest) so that you can fill your lungs with more air, while consciously reducing the rate of your breathing at rest.
According to those who practice it, those slow and deep breaths trigger a cascade of physiological responses that accelerate your descent into a more complete state of relaxation, compared to more passive mindfulness exercises.
“It acts as a speed ramp in meditation practice that helps calm the mind faster so you get the most out of it while you meditate,” explains Richie Bostock, a London-based breathing exercise coach whose book, Exhale (“Exhale”), will be published this year.
“In fact, I call some of the routines I teach ‘Rocket Fuel Meditation’, because of the profound effect they have on calm the mind quickly and take you to that place without thoughts“.
The scientific evidence seems to agree.
Participants with hypertension showed short-term reductions in blood pressure after guided slow breathing exercises, effects that seem to go beyond the benefits of mindfulness, without active breath control.
A revealing recent study found that slow, deep breathing can help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it also appears to help relieve insomnia.
On the other hand, a study by Hassan Jafari from King’s College London showed that deep breathing can improve pain management.
Given these benefits, some scientists suggest that breathing techniques might even help patients cope with chronic diseases like arthritis. (If you have any medical conditions, you should speak with a medical professional before trying any new therapies.)
“Amplifying basic rhythms”
It is not yet clear exactly why slow, deep breathing causes all these changes, although some hypotheses have been proposed.
One promising idea focuses on the sensory nerves that surround the chest, whose effects we feel every time we fill our lungs to the maximum.
“Just by taking a deep breath, you can see to what extent it is a mechanical act,” explains Donald Noble of Emory University in the United States.
That feeling of pressure comes from a set of elastic sensors that measure the expansion of the lungs.
The movement of the chest produced by the relaxation of the diaphragm when we exhale also puts pressure on the blood vessels entering the heart, which ultimately activates another set of sensors (called baroreceptors) in our arteries.
Both types of sensors feed the brainstem, and Noble explains that when we breathe deeply, activity in other regions could be synchronized with that constant, repetitive stimulation.
The resulting slow brain waves lead us to a relaxed alertness.
Faster, shallower breaths by themselves don’t stimulate those nerves, or the brain, as effectively; you need a long inhale and exhale to generate the proper rhythms for the brain.
Equally important are pressure-sensitive baroreceptors, in the arteries around the heart, that feed the vagus nerve.
It is an essential element of the nervous system that is believed to be particularly important in damping the fight or flight response after a threat disappears.
“It allows the body to focus on restorative or nourishing things,” says Noble. That state is often referred to as “rest and digest”.
By repeatedly stimulating the vagus nerve during those long exhalations, slow breathing can shift the nervous system into that calmer state, resulting in positive changes such as a lower heart rate and lower blood pressure.
Interestingly, people who practice breathing seem to find a sweet spot around six breaths per minute.
This appears to produce markedly greater relaxation through some kind of positive feedback loop between the lungs, the heart, and the brain, “unlocking or promoting amplification of a basic physiological rhythm,” says Noble.
The expert believes that this frequency can be found in the repetitive actions of many spiritual practices, such as the Hail Mary said in rosary prayers and the chanting of yogic mantras, which perhaps evolved to send people to a relaxed but focused mental state.
In addition to improving cardiovascular health, the slower respiratory rate of six breaths per minute also appears to be optimal for pain management, according to the Jafari study.
This may be due to both psychological well-being that comes from slow breathing, as well as any direct physiological change in pain sensitivity.
“We believe that psychological effects, particularly changing attention and expectations, play an important role in the pain-relieving effect of these techniques,” he says.
Can technology help?
As evidence grows on the benefits of deep breathing, we may be hearing much more about the power of controlled breathing in books and magazines, on television shows, and at work, as more companies try to teach breathing techniques to improve stress management by employees.
Bostock is one of many coaches (or trainers) offering breathing retreats and corporate workshops.
He says interest has “exploded” recently, with clients including large banks, consulting and technology companies.
In part, they are drawn to its simplicity, he says.
“Experience meditating or practicing mindfulness is not necessary. Once you learn how breathing affects your mind and body, you have a quick and easy way to change your state, whether it be to decrease stress and nervousness, increase your energy and concentration, and even helps in creative problem solving“.
In the future, our learning toward deep relaxation may be guided by devices that record your physiological responses to breathing exercises.
There are already a large number of mobile applications, although not all have rigorously tested their effectiveness.
Of course, yoga practitioners have been reaping these benefits for millennia without such technological aids.
The latest scientific research simply helps us understand why these practices are so beneficial, outside of their religious or spiritual context, and to find potential new ways to maximize them.
If you suffer from regular stress, it may be time to breathe long sighs of relief.
David Robson is the author of The intelligence trap: whysSmart people make dumb mistakes, which examines scientifically proven ways to improve our decision-making and learning. .
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