The most readily-available treatment for anxiety is our breath. It is also the least expensive intervention and has no adverse side effects. So why is it so hard to utilize this natural tool? Personally, I am not an expert breather. In fact, I often breathe shallowly and sometimes hold my breath without realizing it. Over the past couple of years, I have been practicing with taking full, deep breaths, and when I do, I am rewarded with a greater sense of calm and even renewed energy.
I have made some progress towards improving my breathing, but I definitely have room to grow. So my interest was piqued when I read author James Nestor’s May 21st Wall Street Journal article introducing his new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Nestor confirms that it is not just important to breathe, but to breathe well; how we breathe significantly affects our health and wellbeing. He cites landmark longitudinal research from the 1980’s in the Framingham Study, which found that larger lung capacity was the strongest predictor of longevity, beating out diet, exercise and genetic factors to determine how long we live. Proper breathing can lower blood pressure, improve blood circulation and relieve stress on the heart, strengthen our bones, and improve asthma and respiration, in general. Those are good reasons to figure out how to get breathing right.
But the further good news is that we will not only live physically healthier and longer, but we will live with better mental and emotional health when we breathe well. Nester cites the work of psychiatrists Drs. Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg in their 2012 book, The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions. Breathing fully and deeply can reduce anxiety, depression and other mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. That is because breathing has an important role in shifting energy from the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system to the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system.
The importance of allowing the body ample time in the parasympathetic mode, as opposed to the sympathetic, comes up time and time again in my study of trauma, stress and healing. For example, it is a critical mechanism for healing in trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score. New York-based Exhale to Inhale studio, where I obtained my certification in trauma-informed yoga, also emphasizes the importance of the parasympathetic nervous system in healing from trauma, based on van der Kolk’s and other scholars’ work.
Of course, traditions from ancient cultures have told us to breathe all along. In yoga, breath or “prana” is seen as the life-giving force, the universal energy which flows in and around the body. Full, deep breaths bring us into the present moment, calm body and mind, and soothe our spirits, restoring balance and health. Despite the natural function of breathing, most of us need to work at breathing well. Taking time in the morning and evening to focus on our breathing is a good way to build better breathing habits. And using our breath when we feel anxious and uncomfortable is a wonderful way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and all of its healing effects. I’ll be practicing, and I would be glad to support your practice, too.