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How does breath work improve mental health?

Deep breaths a day keeps the doctor away. (Photo via Unsplash/ Eli Defaria)
Deep breaths a day keeps the doctor away. (Photo via Unsplash/ Eli Defaria)

Did you focus on your breath today? Typically, this is not something that we focus on throughout the day. It is probably something we all take for granted, like digestion or blinking our eyes. These are things that we don't need to 'work' on, they just occur. However, breathing is different. There are ways we can do it intentionally. Certain patterns of breathing can change how you feel internally.

We now live in a digitally-obsessed, escape-based society. Looking at the present studies on happiness, it seems we are not a happy society. Around 25% of women in the US are on anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants. Sleep dysfunction, according to recent studies, is at an epidemic level. This is not a problem limited to the US but a global one.

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What is breath work?

Numerous breathing exercises and methods fall under the umbrella of "breath work." Although mindful breathing has been around for a while, the term "breath work" and some breathing techniques - especially those that don't involve movement, like yoga - have recently gained popularity.

Even a little knowledge of physiology can help explain why controlled breathing can have a calming effect. The impact different emotions can have on the body is common knowledge. For example, when you're delighted, your mouth's corners naturally rise, and the corners of your eyes wrinkle distinctively. Similarly, your breathing slows and deepens when you're relaxed, at ease, or having a great conversation.


Ways in which breath work improves mental health

It might seem more difficult than ever to attain peace of mind in a world where taking a breath feels like a luxury. However, staying composed and focused is easier than you think. Simple exercises like deep breathing can significantly impact your health and well-being.

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Consider these advantages of deep breathing if you're prepared to try it.


1) Signals the parasympathetic system

Our nervous system becomes active when we are worried, anxious, or terrified. There are two branches of our nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Our fight-or-flight reactions are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system manages our "rest and digest" states.

Many of us breathe quickly, shallowly, and unconsciously throughout the day. However, when we inhale deeply, we tell our parasympathetic nervous system to relax the body. This results in a more relaxed state where we can better control our stress responses, thus reducing worry and dread.


2) Improves sleep

A study used heart rate variability (HRV) under controlled breathing to measure the cardiac neural activity of 14 self-identified individuals with insomnia and 14 excellent sleepers.

According to the study, people with insomnia have autonomic dysfunction, especially regarding vagal activity. The study showed that 20 minutes of slow breathing exercise (6 respiration cycles before bed) significantly improves sleep.

Did you consciously breathe today? (Photo via Unsplash/ Max Oetelaar)
Did you consciously breathe today? (Photo via Unsplash/ Max Oetelaar)

3) Relieves stress

While there are various techniques to manage stress, breathing is one of the simplest and most practical strategies because we do it without even realizing it. When feeling overwhelmed, breathing exercises are a great intervention or coping tool because they can be done anytime, anywhere, and they're supported by science.

According to studies, practicing mindfulness and breathing techniques can reduce stress and sadness, improve mental health, and elicit happy emotions. Additionally, breathing exercises help you think more clearly and feel less anxious.

Simple breathing has shown significant improvements in mental health. (Photo via Pexels/ Tara Winstead)
Simple breathing has shown significant improvements in mental health. (Photo via Pexels/ Tara Winstead)

4) Manage symptoms

Chronic stress is a common issue that has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. This stress can disrupt the regular breathing rhythm, which in turn can aggravate anxiety and other mental health issues. By practicing mindful breathing techniques, people can begin to reset their breathing system, which can enhance how they feel and think.

In one small study, participants were taught belly breathing (another name for diaphragmatic breathing) for 20 sessions over eight weeks, which led to noticeably decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and significantly higher sustained attention rates.

Breathing and meditation can relieve symptoms of distress. (Photo via Unsplash/ Darius Bashar)
Breathing and meditation can relieve symptoms of distress. (Photo via Unsplash/ Darius Bashar)

5) Higher energy

You might believe that deep breathing doesn't do anything but make you feel exhausted. However, the exact opposite is true. Breathing deeply can help enhance your energy by supplying the blood with more oxygen. This helps you feel happier and more awake throughout the day by playing a significant role in mood enhancement.

Breathe in breathe out. (Photo via Pexels/ Arthouse studio)
Breathe in breathe out. (Photo via Pexels/ Arthouse studio)

It can be incredibly empowering to focus on and become aware of breath's function in our daily lives. Breathwork can have a significant positive effect on mental health and wellness since it is a potent self-regulation tool and coping skill.

Edited by Shreya Das
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