New Year greetings!
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
– Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
How we breathe is taken for granted and yet it is a powerful resource that can be used to treat serious dis-ease such as asthma and hypertension. Both have evidence-based research to support the contention that changing your breathing style can directly affect health and wellbeing.
The research of Dr. Alicia E. Meuret, Ph. D shows clearly that before the beginning of a panic attack, unbeknown to you the breath has become over-breathing, with low carbon dioxide levels up to 2 hours before the onset of actual panic. The body responds to over breathing by reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and tightens the small air passages that we depend upon to release the oxygen vital for fully functioning.
Breathing quickly or shallowly from the upper chest, using mainly chest muscles, as opposed to using the diaphragm as the bellows, can cause or exacerbate problems such as anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome and sleep apnoea, as well as asthma and hypertension.
Most people think that taking deep breaths will help them to recover from a panic attack. Over breathing starts as a response to fear and prepares the individual for fight or flight to get away from the danger. Breathing in this way reduces the CO2 in the outbreath and the levels drop dramatically as we respond to the threat. The flexibility of breath, around the average normal of 40mm of Mercury, can halve that figure. A drop in CO2 to 20mm of Mercury from 40mm to 20mm halves oxygen delivery. For each drop of 1mm of Mercury 2% of oxygen cannot be released from our Haemoglobin.
Dr Meuret showed that with feedback of CO2 levels the affected person could maintain not only normal CO2 levels but optimum oxygen saturation and went on to create Capnography-led breath control as an effective method to treat overt anxiety and panic attack disorder.
This effect was shown beautifully during a demonstration workshop I conducted. A registrar doctor described how she needed her asthma medication during stressful times, and it was only at these times she needed her inhalers. She had a particularly severe panic attack before her major exams and was very well at other times. While measuring CO2 level in the outbreath with a capnometer she responded to deep and prolonged over breathing as expected with CO2 levels falling to below 30mm of Mercury. She felt her air passages tighten. She then went on to say that when she was under continuing stress and fear of failing, her mind/body/breath connection created wheeze and asthma. Her symptoms disappeared when she brought her breathing back to normal CO2 levels. We followed this change on the capnometer accompanied by her feedback.
This insight encouraged and allowed her to change her breathing style when challenged or stressed. By using C02 feedback during her capnography sessions not only to notice and avoid over-breathing as part of her health coaching, she also used her breath control with CO2 feedback to create a state of relaxation before she went to bed.
I have mentioned that small blood vessels with a muscular coat tighten in response to sustained stress, accompanied by over breathing which leads me to another powerful breathing practice that is helpful in treating Essential Hypertension. A device called a Resperate teaches the user to gradually slow their breath rate. A rate of in the region of 6 breaths per minute with a slow outbreath is ideal and practiced for 10 mins twice a day. This approach has been shown in controlled trials to be as effective when compared with 2 widely used drugs taken for hypertension. Regular blood pressure measuring to confirm effectiveness must accompany its use.
Another interesting find involves the physical and mental fitness of cadets in the US Navy which is tested at the start of each intake. At the commencement of special training, the elite group of new cadets are exposed to gruelling physical challenges. Anxiety will be present as future self-esteem depends on passing. Until recently 75% of the intake did not pass. However, when a course of breath training with CO2 feedback was included and understood before the main exercise challenge, the majority passed.
How we breathe is so fundamental to our wellbeing but often forgotten.