Breath is life. Breathing is something we do every minute of every day. Your body instinctively knows how and when to breathe; it has done it since birth. Breathing is something we are usually unaware of and thus take for granted. That’s where mindful breathing comes in.
Constant distractions fill our lives every day. We are continually connected to technology and bombarded by noise. We rarely spend time alone, relaxing and calming the chatter from our mind. Most of us become very uncomfortable with even the thought of being quiet and present — focused on just our breathing. Some would say this is nothing but psychological mumbo-jumbo and make a quick decision that mindful breathing is a waste of time. However, research now proves there is science to back up the health benefits of mindful breathing.
When you practice mindful breathing, you gain a helpful skill to use whenever you need to quiet and clear your mind. Just following a few breaths—in and out, in and out—can relax your mind and body so you can calmly observe and respond to the world around you, rather than mindlessly reacting to events.
How Does Mindful Breathing Work?
Deep and slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. This nerve connects the brain stem with the abdomen and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for so-called “rest and digest” activities. For example, it causes the heart rate to decline when we exhale. On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system is what controls “fight or flight” responses. See the chart for the difference between sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The vagus nerve activates when we slow our breathing to around 5 to 7 breaths per minute (our usual pace is about 12 to 18 per minute). In addition to slowing our heart rate, the vagus nerve also controls the release of various neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine. Acetylcholine slows both our heart rate and digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, for people with severe conditions such as epilepsy, there are devices available that can stimulate the vagus nerve.
Breathing and controlling your breath is one of the easiest ways to improve mental and physical health. Take a deep breath and relax. Behind that common piece of advice is a complex series of physiological processes that calm the body, slow the heart and help control pain.
The Wall Street Journal
Mindful Breathing Research
Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, of which mindful breathing is a part, even for just a short time, can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Below are some of these benefits.
- Immune System: A seminal study found that practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness after just eight weeks of training.
- Good for mental health: Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. One study suggests mindful breathing is as effective as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse.
- Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases the density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.
- Focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory and attention skills.
- Compassion: Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism. Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
- Relationships: Mindfulness enhances relationships. Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another.
- Parenting: Mindfulness is good for parents and parents-to-be. Studies suggest it may reduce pregnancy-related anxiety, stress, and depression in expectant parents. Parents who practice mindfulness report being happier with their parenting skills and their relationship with their kids and their kids were found to have better social skills.
- Schools: Mindfulness helps schools. There’s scientific evidence that teaching mindfulness in the classroom reduces behavior problems and aggression among students and improves their happiness levels and ability to pay attention. Teachers trained in mindfulness also show lower blood pressure, less negative emotion and symptoms of depression, and greater compassion and empathy.
- Health Care Professionals: Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their general quality of life. It also helps mental health professionals reduce negative emotions and anxiety and increase their positive emotions and feelings of self-compassion.
- Prison Inmates: Mindfulness helps prisons. Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions, helping with their rehabilitation and reintegration.
- Veterans & PTSD: Mindfulness helps veterans. Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.
- Obesity: Mindfulness fights obesity. Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them savor the food they do eat.
- Cancer Treatment: According to the National Cancer Institute, mind-body treatment techniques such as mindful breathing may improve patient well-being and help reduce the sometimes harmful side effects of traditional treatments.
Mindful Breathing Help
To help people become more aware of their breathing patterns, a wearable device called Spire can be helpful. Spire helps users track their breathing and know when to slow down and take a deep breath. The idea is that you don’t have to stop what you are doing to shift into a calmer, more healthful breathing state. This device may be particularly useful for those who spend long hours at the computer and whose breathing seems to change significantly while they’re doing their work. At one end of the spectrum, some individuals tend to hold their breath—a condition known as “screen apnea.” At the other end of the spectrum are the rapid breathers. A small study by Neema Moraveji, co-founder of Spire and director of the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University, showed that people working on a computer took an average of 16.7 breaths per minute versus 9.3 breaths a minute when relaxed.
Health Benefits of Mindful Breathing
- detoxifies & releases toxins
- releases tension
- relaxes the mind & body
- relieves emotional tension
- relieves pain
- massages your organs
- increases muscle
- improves posture
- increases digestion & assimilation of food
- improves nervous system
- strengthens the lungs
- helps lower blood pressure
- boosts energy levels
- improves stamina
- improves cellular regeneration
- elevates mood
- improves quality of the blood
- strengthens immune system
- strengthens the heart
- assists in weight control
Mindful Breathing Technique for Stress Relief
Sit comfortably in an upright position – both feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes and relax.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the one on the chest — ensuring that the diaphragm is pulling air into the lung base.
After exhaling through the mouth, take a slow, deep breath in through the nose and hold for a 5- count. Slowly exhale through your mouth for another count of 5.
As all the air is released with relaxation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to evacuate the remaining air from your lungs completely.
Repeat this exercise 5-10 times in a slow & steady rhythm. After more practice, try to increase your repetitions.
Pay close attention to the sensation of your breathing as you inhale & exhale. Allow yourself to relax deeper with each breath while focusing only on your breath.
In a nutshell
Mindful breathing can help elevate mood, relieve stress, detoxify and release toxins, strengthen your lungs, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, boost your immune system, improve emotional health and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties—all excellent reasons to begin to incorporate mindful breathing into your natural remedies for health and wellness. Most people will start to experience very definite stress-relief benefits within ten days, using mindful breathing with just two sessions per day. Try it.
References and Research
Greg Feldman, Jeff Greeson, and Joanna Senville. Differential effects of mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and loving kindness meditation on decentering and negative reactions to repetitive thoughts. Behav Res Ther. 2010 Oct; 48(10): 1002–1011. Published online 2010 Jun 23. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.06.006
Carolyn Schatz. Mindful Meditation Improves Connections in the Brain. Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. April, 2011. www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-improves-connections-in-the-brain-201104082253
Daphne M. Davis and Jeffrey A. Hayes. What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. Psychotherapy 2011, Vol. 48, No. 2, 198–208.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Oasis Advanced Wellness/OAWHealth does not dispense medical advice, prescribe, or diagnose illness. The views and nutritional advice expressed by Oasis Advanced Wellness/OAWHealth are not intended to be a substitute for conventional medical service. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician of choice.