By Jonathan Chung, DC
When it comes to mindfulness training, there is no shortage of techniques to help reclaim control of a wandering mind. The numerous benefits of mindfulness are well documented in clinical trials across a wide variety of conditions, ranging from anxiety and depression to autoimmune disease and chronic pain.
Meditation tends to be at the center of most mindfulness strategies. There’s been a sharp rise in tools available to help facilitate meditative practice. While most practitioners will emphasize that the benefit of mindfulness comes from clearing the mind, there’s reason to believe there’s a significant benefit to the breath work often accompanying meditative practice.
Many meditative practices use cues for a person to focus on their breath as a way to clear their mind of busy or negative thoughts. The breathing pattern is usually quiet, slow, and intentional which may create therapeutic effects independent of meditation alone. Your pattern of breath can profoundly impact the autonomic nervous system.
The function of the autonomic nervous system is critical for the health of the body. The autonomic system consists of two branches.
- The sympathetic system which reacts to stress and dictates a fight or flight response.
- The parasympathetic system which calms the body down for resting and digesting.
Both systems are important for survival and health. But many of us spend far too much time in fight or flight, which comes with detrimental long term health impacts. Prolonged and unchecked fight or flight may play a role in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not easy to change our personalities and how we react to stress. But it’s important that we keep the stress physiology in check.
Changing your breathing patterns, a simple and free way to reduce stress, takes no additional use of your time. A problem with meditative practice is that it has relatively low compliance. People find it can be difficult to clear their mind, and give up on the practice early. Many people also find it stressful to allocate the time needed for a meditative practice into a busy schedule. When life gets in the way, it’s just human nature to abandon routines where an activity is difficult, time consuming, and takes time and repetition to show benefit.
Is it possible to derive some of the benefits of mindfulness based training without the intentional practice of clearing your mind? This is where breath work may come into play.
Most of us generally take breathing for granted because it’s automatic. We feel the effects of it with a respiratory problem, but we don’t think twice about it if we can breathe normally. However, the way we breathe matters a lot.
Many of us breath in a fast and shallow way, but neurologically this can bias our sympathetic nervous system. When we inhale rapidly, our sympathetic nerves tend to fire more which keeps our heart rates slightly elevated. Breathing out gets the opposite effect. It tends to activate our vagus nerve and slows down our heart rate.
Spending more time breathing out can be a simple way to get more parasympathetic activation from our vagus nerve! It’s too simple, but it can be really effective.
Here’s how you can work on this:
- When reading, watching TV, working on the computer, or getting ready for sleep, start focusing on slowing your breath.
- Take normal breaths in, but focus on doubling the number of seconds breathing out.
If it takes 2 seconds to breathe in, spend a full 4 seconds breathing out. If it takes 3 seconds to breathe in, spend 6 seconds out.
Try to go as slow as possible. Whenever possible, focus on breathing in and out through the nostrils instead of the mouth. Specific benefits from nasal breathing can enhance this effect compared to mouth breathing.
Initially the breath out will feel strange, but it is normal to be uncomfortable while training yourself to breathe differently.
Within weeks of practice, your natural pattern will change, and this can significantly affect your physiology. Best of all, you can work on this exercise anytime and anywhere without any interference to your normal daily activities. All it takes is a little bit of mindfulness.
Jonathan Chung, DC is the founder and upper cervical chiropractor at Keystone Chiropractic and Neuroplasticity in Wellington, Florida. Learn more about their cervical vestibular rehabilitation program at www.chiropractickeystone.com