Mind Over Matter — Benefits of Mindfulness and Active Breathing
When you think of mindfulness, perhaps warm spring air, a babbling brook, or a Tibetan monk lowing a monotone “hum” comes to thought. But mindfulness is simply the act of becoming more self-aware — aware of where you are and what you are doing, while simultaneously allowing yourself to not be overwhelmed by what is going on around and within you.
What we think, regardless of whether we state it out loud, can have an impact on our actions. Learning to rewire our thoughts can have powerful benefits in improving our mental and physical wellbeing. Below we will explore ways to combat stress and retrain our brain for better thinking.
Active Breathing (Deep Breathing)
Focusing on your breathing is at the core of successful mindfulness practice as you focus your attention on the present, rather than on your future worries. “Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth.” You may have done this countless times at your doctor’s office, while a cold stethoscope is pressed against your back. Without knowing it, you were actively breathing.
Active breathing is the voluntary control of the inhalation and exhalation of your breathing rhythm5 and research is revealing how breathing slow and steady can reduce your heart rate and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes “rest and digest” functions of the body, to calm you down.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Studies are indicating how improving your breathing practices can benefit aspects of both your physical and mental health.
Cortisol and Stress Reduction
Cortisol, a hormone produced by your body, acts as an indicator of stress. When you undergo a stressful event, such as cramming for an upcoming project deadline, the concentration of cortisol rises in the body to help you cope. However, cortisol release has been associated with contributing to depression, anxiety and experiences of negative emotions. Breathing interventions reduce stress by lowering cortisol levels. Cortisol concentration was observed to decrease significantly following 20 diaphragmatic breathing intervention sessions. Similarly, parents who have children or adolescents with type 1 diabetes, often deal with high stress to ensure the ongoing health of their child. These parents showed similar results with a drop in cortisol following a stress-management program using diaphragmatic breathing.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, high blood pressure is the number one risk factor for stroke and can put you at major risk for heart disease. Following 10 sessions of slow abdominal breathing, women with borderline high blood pressure experienced a significant drop in both systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
Additionally, their systolic blood pressure remained below their starting baseline, at the one and three-month check-ups after the experiment was completed. Active breathing can also enhance cardiovascular function by improving oxygenation, lung functioning and a person’s general cardiorespiratory fitness.
Anxiety and Depression
Breathing exercises are being used to bring relief to those suffering from anxiety and depression. Pregnant women experiencing pre-term labour experienced reduced anxiety following 5-minute abdominal breathing interventions over a 30-session period. Similarly, patients with chronic low back pain had reduced anxiety and depression following a 7-day yoga program that incorporated breathing exercises.
Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) is helping those with anxiety and mood disorders to rework their thinking to become more reflective rather than reactive to stressors in their life. Forming habits of healthy thinking are made by reflecting on the present moment non-judgmentally, and diverting your attention away from past or future stressors that can initiate the feelings associated with depression and anxiety. A 2010 study showed that MBT can act as an effective intervention in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders, as patients learn to view stressful situations as manageable and non-threatening.
Attention and Cognitive Functioning
Breathing exercises may also improve concentration and is showing effectiveness as a treatment method for individuals with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Additional studies indicated that periods of brief mindful meditation exercises were able to enhance sustained attention, and helped reduce fatigue.
Take Home Exercise
Take a moment to try relaxing with a simple deep breathing technique.
Find a quiet place to sit still or lie down. With your eyes closed, place one hand on your stomach as your other hand rests gently over your heart. Inhale slowly, allowing yourself to feel your stomach rise. Hold your breath for a brief moment before exhaling slowly, feeling the fall of your chest and stomach. Repeat this exercise while focusing on the sound of your breath, as you continue to breathe slowly and calmly.
Stress is inevitable but having to be stressed out is not. Mindfulness works to retrain your thinking to allow you to better cope with life’s difficulties. Research provides evidence that active breathing can be an effective relaxation technique to reduce stress while providing added benefits to your physical and mental wellbeing.
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