Fitness, Healthy Living

Benefits of Deep Breathing

Health Coaching

Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh puts it, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” 

Mind-body practices, such as meditation or yoga, have been shown to improve symptoms for people suffering from chronic diseases. These effects may be reflected in benefiting people with hypertension and cardiovascular disease through the lowering of heart rate, blood pressure, and blood lipid profile. A decrease in inflammation has also been shown to occur through the reduction of pro-inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and pro-inflammatory cytokines. Beyond benefiting chronic diseases and reducing inflammation, mind-body practices have also been shown to improve general health through increasing bone density and improving balance, strength, and flexibility. Studies have also shown a relationship between mind-body practices and a reduction in chronic pain. 

These practices don’t stop with just physical health–they also have been shown to have an impact on mental health through the reduction of stress and negative affect, all the while increasing well-being and self-efficacy. The reduction in stress may be related to the physiological effects that benefit chronic diseases: reduced heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, and inflammatory markers. All of this can lead to a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Cognitive performance has also been shown to improve with the implementation of a regular mind-body practice. Increases in executive function and working memory have been shown, both of which are a great way to prevent cognitive decline as we age. Effects related to attentional control have also been shown, which could have an impact for people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Additionally, there may be a relationship between a mind-body practice and increased verbal creativity. The reasoning behind increased cognition is related to mind-body practices utilizing six forms of mental training: attention training, affect training, metacognitive adjustment, body awareness training, physical exercise, and breathing techniques. 

Attention training involves many sensory or cognitive modalities. These include external senses, the body, the breath, thoughts, and feelings. Mind-body practices are often focused on sustained attention, managing distractions, and refocusing or shifting attention.  

Affect training is aimed at removing or transforming negative emotions or moods. Non-judgmental attention is central to mind-body practices and could be related to the benefits associated with mental health, reduction in effects from chronic stress and increased immune function and cardiovascular health. 

Metacognitive adjustment is related to being aware of your awareness and thinking about thinking. To put it more plainly, it is becoming consciously aware of your thoughts rather than having them run in the background. It enables the ability to be conscious of your perceptions so that you identify fixed patterns that may or may not be working for you, especially with working toward better health. This can lead to becoming more tolerant of ambiguity and increasing mental flexibility. 

Body awareness training is achieved through mind-body practices through focused attention to different parts of the body. It is believed that body awareness is crucial towards cultivating empathy and could have a positive influence on emotional and cognitive levels. 

Physical exercise is part of the movement component to a healthy lifestyle. It has an impact on motor coordination, skill learning, and physical strength. While this is a component of some mind-body practices, it is not a major factor. For this reason, it is not believed to have a big influence on the physical and mental aspects of mind-body practices. 

Breathing techniques are a central part of most mind-body practices. Techniques that can be used include slowing down the breath, shifting toward diaphragmatic breathing, and increasing awareness of “natural” breathing. These breathing exercises, especially when focused on longer exhalations than inhalations, are believed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system [hyperlink to article explaining the CNS] and deactivate the sympathetic nervous system  [hyperlink to article explaining the CNS]. In short, this form of breathing shuts down the fight or flight response caused by a stressor and moves the body toward a more relaxed physiological state. 

It is this last form of mental training that is believed to have the most impact on managing the stress response and leading to reduced inflammation and a decrease in symptoms for chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease. This leads to increased cardiorespiratory synchronization resulting in reduced blood pressure, decreased heart rate, and improved heart rate variability.

One of the easiest ways to create a regular mind-body practice is to begin with the Relaxing Breath or the 4-7-8 Breathing technique. This technique is performed by breathing in for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of seven, and then exhaling for a count of eight.

Erika Zink, NBC-HWC

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