Focused Breathing Therapy: How To Relieve Stress Through Attentive Breathing
What is focused breathing?
Focused breathing involves consciously thinking about distinct breathing patterns that, when done correctly and for long enough, can work to alleviate stress and reduce anxiety. Because our physiology can be altered by breathing, these exercises are designed to induce a calmer, more restful state, and thus reduce the levels of stress hormones in the system. For this reason, focused breathing has been used by monks, warriors and athletes for many centuries with great success. Through practice and persistence, it can have effects profound enough to rival or even outperform what many anti-anxiety drugs might accomplish.
How does focused breathing work to reduce stress?
Because breathing is a part of our core biology and at the root of our sympathetic nervous system, it's closely interwoven with the body's stress responses. Think about a time when you've been really scared or really stressed out. Though you might not have noticed it at the time, you probably felt a distinct change in your breathing patterns or even a shortness of breath. Your breathing changed in response to the increased stress, becoming more shallow and rapid.
Not only does stress alter our breathing patterns, but it also works in reverse: By making an effort to induce a calmer, more relaxed manner of breathing, we can actually reduce the amount of stress in our system, thus reducing anxiety and improving our overall mood.
Certain types of anxious breathing patterns can tap into our nervous system and activate the body's "fight or flight" stress response in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. Throughout our day to day lives, especially if our lives are filled with stress, we tend to fall into a pattern of anxious breathing. As yoga instructor Kate Holcombe states, "most people's unconscious breathing patterns are anything but easeful and smooth; they tend to be tense, shallow, and erratic." (Holcombe, 2012, p. 52) Focused breathing helps you to break these unconscious, stress-based breathing patterns, returning our physiology to a less stressful and more relaxed state.
The benefits of focused breathing
Studies have shown a number of benefits from focused breathing. In one study, subjects were taught a method of breathing deeply into their abdomen, maintaining a focused attention on breathing like this for 20 minutes. After this exercise was over, tests revealed they had fewer negative feelings, more of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin in their bloodstream (the same chemical antidepressants attempt to target), and more oxygenated hemoglobin in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with attention and high-level processing. (Rodriguez, 2011)
A different study looked at the effect of focused breathing on depression symptoms. Subjects stayed in mindful contact with their breathing for 18 minute trials. Those who were able to keep focused throughout the exercise reported less negative thinking, less rumination, and fewer of the other symptoms of depression. "In my opinion, the cultivation of mindfulness through breathing meditation helps to prevent depression," says study author Jan M. Burg. (ibid) Particularly, in addition to the changes in stress hormones and positive neurotransmitters, it may allow people to disengage from rumination, which is a central part of depression.