A resting adult breathes an average of about 16 times a minute (or 23,000 times a day). At 30, you inhaled and exhaled approximately 250 million times.
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It was assumed that, with all this practice, we would all be specialists in breathing. Could we then learn something new about this basic instinct? The answer is: without a doubt.
Recent scientific research shows that rapid, shallow, unfocused breathing can contribute to a range of problems, including anxiety, depression and high blood pressure.
But, on the other hand, developing greater control over our lungs can have many benefits for our physical and mental health.
Interestingly, scientists are finding that a given breathing rate of about six exhales per minute can be especially restorative, triggering a “relaxation response” in the body and the brain.
In addition to inspiring health and wellness gurus, breathing exercise has also begun to attract the attention of large companies, who hope the practice can help employees stay focused and deal with the daily stress of work.
‘Ramp to speed up relaxation’
Like the current mindfulness wave, respiratory therapy was inspired by the teachings of ancient texts, especially in the Hindu and Vedic scriptures, which exalt a importance of breath control through practices such as pranayama, breathing yoga exercises.
Do you pay attention to your breathing? – Photo: Getty Images / BBC
You may be wondering if breathing exercises are simply another name for mindfulness, as many meditation courses encourage participants to focus their attention on inhaling and exhaling.
But while mindfulness often involves passive observation (“watching your breath”), respiratory therapies require you to actively change the way you breathe.
That includes breathe with the diaphragm (instead of moving the chest) to fill the lungs with more air and, at the same time, consciously decrease the breathing rate at rest.
According to the practitioner, these slow, deep breaths trigger cascading physiological responses that accelerate your journey to a more complete state of relaxation compared to more passive mindfulness exercises.
An Indian defense lab is experimenting with yoga techniques to help soldiers in hostile environments – Photo: Getty Images / BBC
“It acts as a ramp to gain speed in the practice of meditation, helping to calm the mind faster so that you get the most out of it while meditating,” explains Richie Bostock, a respiratory therapist and author of the book Exhale (“Expire”, in free translation), launched this year.
“In fact, I call some series that I teach ‘rocket fuel meditation’, because of the profound effect they have on quickly calming the mind and taking you to that thoughtless place.”
Scientific evidence seems to support this. In a survey, participants with hypertension experienced a short-term reduction in blood pressure after guided slow breathing exercises, effect that seems to go beyond the benefits of mindfulness practice, without active control of breathing.
Another recent study found that slow, deep breathing can help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as helping to alleviate insomnia.
And a study by researcher Hassan Jafari, from King’s College London, UK, showed that deep breathing can improve pain control.
Several studies suggest that deep breathing has positive health effects – Photo: Getty Images / BBC
Given these benefits, some scientists suggest that breathing techniques can help patients deal with even chronic illnesses like arthritis.
But be careful: if you have any health problems, you should consult a doctor before trying any new therapy.
‘Amplifying basic rhythms’
It is still unclear exactly why slow, deep breathing causes all these changes, although some hypotheses have been raised.
A promising theory focuses on the nerves located in the chest, the effects of which we feel every time we fill our lungs with air.
“Just take a deep breath to see how mechanical it is,” explains Donald Noble of Emory University in the United States.
This sensation of pressure comes from a set of elasticity sensors that measure the expansion of the lungs.
THE movement of the chest produced by relaxing the diaphragm when we exhale also puts pressure on the blood vessels that reach the heart, which ends up activating another set of sensors (called baroreceptors) in our arteries.
Both types of sensors feed the brain stem, and Noble explains that when we breathe deeply, activity in other regions can be synchronized with this constant and repetitive stimulation.
The slow brain waves resulting from this act bring us to a relaxed state of alertness.
The faster, shallow breaths alone do not stimulate these nerves, nor the brain, so effectively. You need long-term inspirations and exhales to generate the rhythms that are right for your brain.
The vagus nerve helps the body to mitigate fight and flight reactions when there is no longer an imminent threat – Photo: Alamy / BBC
Equally important are the pressure-sensitive baroreceptors in the arteries around the heart that supply the vagus nerve.
It is an essential element of the nervous system that is believed to be particularly important to mitigate the fight or flight response after a threat has disappeared. “It allows the body to focus on restorative or nutritious things,” says Noble.
By repeatedly stimulating the vagus nerve during long exhales, slow breathing can bring the nervous system to a state of rest, resulting in positive changes, such as decreased heart rate and blood pressure.
Interestingly, people who practice respiratory therapy seem to find a sweet spot around six breaths per minute.
This appears to produce significantly greater relaxation through a type of positive feedback loop between the lungs, the heart and the brain.
“You are sort of unlocking or promoting the amplification of a basic physiological rhythm,” says Noble.
The expert believes that this frequency can be found in the repetitive actions of many spiritual practices, such as the Ave Maria prayed in the thirds and the chanting of yoga mantras, which may have evolved to bring people to a relaxed but focused state of mind.
In addition to improving cardiovascular health, the slower respiratory rate of six breaths per minute also appears to be ideal for pain control, according to Jafari’s study.
This can happen both because of the psychological well-being that comes with slow breathing, and because of any direct physiological change in sensitivity to pain.
“We believe that the psychological effects, especially of changing the focus of attention and expectations, play an important role in the analgesic effect of these techniques,” he says.
About six breaths per minute is the frequency that provides the most relaxation and is a rhythm found in repetitive actions of spiritual practices – Photo: Getty Images / BBC
Can technology help?
With more and more evidence about the benefits of deep breathing, we hear more about the power of controlled breathing in books and magazines, on television shows and even at work, as more companies try to teach breathing techniques to help employees manage stress.
Bostock is one of many that offer breathing retreats and corporate workshops. He says interest has “exploded” recently, attracting clients like big banks, consulting and technology companies. In part, they are attracted by the simplicity of the technique, Bostock believes.
“No previous experience in meditation or mindfulness is needed. Once you learn how breathing affects your body and mind, you have a quick and easy way to change your state, whether it’s to reduce stress and nervousness, increase your focus. and energy, and even help in creative problem solving. ”
In the future, our journey towards deep relaxation can be guided by devices that record physiological responses to breathing exercises.
For example, a recent experiment placed participants on a virtual reality beach at sunset. The variability of their heart rate was illustrated by clouds on the horizon: the more relaxed they became, the clearer the sky became.
The immediate feedback seemed to facilitate their journey towards relaxation, and as soon as they got there, a fire lit up on the beach, reinforcing the feeling that they had reached their goal.
This, in turn, helped them to return to the state of relaxation during a later cognitive test, increasing their concentration.
There are already a plethora of smartphone apps that purport to work in a similar way, although not all have been rigorously tested for effectiveness.
Obviously, yoga practitioners have been reaping these benefits for millennia without the help of technology.
The most recent scientific research simply helps us to understand the reasons why these practices are so beneficial, outside their religious or spiritual context, and to find new ways to enhance them.
If you suffer from stress regularly, it may be time to take a long breath (in relief!).
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