Whether you’re gathering a lungful of air to sing a series of sustained notes, or hoping to stop those hiccoughs before a minute or two of annoyance turns into 15 minutes of sustained torture, it’s pretty cool knowing that we have at least some control over our breathing.
When we breathe consciously, hold our breaths, pant, breathe deeply or shallowly, or quickly or slowly, we directly influence how our breathing affects our bodies and our brains.
Eastern health practices figured out centuries ago that deep, circular, diaphragmatic breathing facilitates our ability to enter a calmer, relaxed, meditative state and enables us to manage stress and anxiety – and even lower our blood pressure and heart rates. Recent research suggests that using controlled breathing during meditation may even spark brain growth!
Researchers have discovered that this deep breathing increases the thickness in the parts of the brain associated with sensory input processing and attention. You can visit the Lazar Lab, website of Sara Lazar, PhD., which offers more information on her Harvard team’s studies on the positive effects of meditation and yoga – and the breathing required to achieve relaxed states – on cognitive and behavioral functions.
If you still aren’t completely convinced that embracing a more mindful awareness of your own breathing benefits your health, consider another study led by Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in Mind Body Medicine, which concluded that controlled breathing along with relaxation response causes positive changes to the expression of genes associated with the body’s response to stress.
Before we look at the study, let’s consider the word: stress. We aren’t talking about the “positive” stress (or eustress, a mild stress that enhances and improves cognitive brain function) but “negative” stress.
According to a 2015 survey from the American Psychological Association, average negative stress levels in the U.S. rose from 4.9 in 2014 to 5.1 on a 10-point stress scale; more than 24% of adults reported “extreme stress” a year ago than the 18% facing “extreme stress” in the previous year. The American Psychological Association even has a page dedicated to the negative effects of chronic stress on your health – with practical suggestions on reducing stress levels.
Participants in the APA’s study named discrimination, money, work, family responsibilities, health concerns, and the economy as contributors to higher stress levels. While the survey results were released in early 2016, how might today’s post-election, uncertain political climate affect these participants’ responses? Anecdotally, many physicians are reporting much higher rates of patients presenting with stress-related illnesses since November 2016.
In this 2008 study, researchers from Harvard Medical School, BIDMC Genomics Center, Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and several other institutions, analyzed the effectiveness of mind-body practices that elicit the relaxation response, a technique which reduces stress’s negative effects on the body and mind.
After studying the effects of relaxation response in a group of novices and a group of individuals who’d received eight weeks of training in relaxation response prior to the study, the team concluded that positive changes do occur in the genes of short and long-term practitioners of mindfulness. Even the group with no relaxation response training saw benefits.
Why is this evidence so groundbreaking? The researchers proved that relaxation response, characterized by decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological stress, can counteract negative physiological responses to stress at the cellular level.
Since psychosocial stress interrupts regular processes at the cellular level and increases cellular aging which can lead to an increased vulnerability to many diseases, the team hypothesized that by intentionally and mindfully practicing relaxation responses, participants would be able to halt – maybe even reverse – the negative effects of stress on their bodies, even down to the cellular level. While they agree that more investigation is needed, the team concluded that relaxation response programs offer a strong therapeutic value to reduce the effects of stress-related illnesses or disorders.
Now imagine if you were faced with a serious illness or disease but could use relaxation response, which includes meditation, yoga, tai chi, guided imagery, biofeedback and breathing mindfully, to reduce the negative effects of stress and in doing so, even over shorter periods of time, positively affect your genes and enable them to more successfully defend against the effects of stress at a cellular level. Talk about giving your body’s arsenal even more support to fight off illness and disease and reduce that daily stress buildup, at least until you watch the evening news!