Saturday, January 23, 2021
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Using the breath for better mental health

Divya Kanchibotla

According to WHO, depression will be one of the leading causes of global disease burden in 2020. Mental Health experts are warning about a historic wave of mental health disorders post pandemic. In this scenario, it becomes even more important to provide safe, natural ways of preventing and managing depression. One powerful tool that has been underutilized but is accessible is our breath.
Breathing is an exceptional function in the body. The functioning of most organs critical to survival and health, like heart, stomach, pancreas, liver is involuntary, i.e not under our control. Breathing is unique as it is mostly involuntary, but can be made voluntary under our conscious control. The ability to switch between voluntary and involuntary allows breathing to impact the body-mind complex, and gives us access to a slew of benefits that are now validated by scientific research.
Breathing forms the basis of a variety of relaxation and wellness techniques. Here's why. Human ability to consciously regulate breathing has been explored for eons, especially in the Yogic practices and tenets for its powerful effect on mind and body. From reducing clinical depression to correcting your circadian rhythm and managing symptoms of anxiety and stress, there is now available a growing body of research on wellness applications of breathwork.

Reduces depression

In one of the first research studies done on Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), a rhythmic breathing practice, researchers at NIMHANS, India looked at a population suffering from depression. They found that two thirds of people suffering from depression who underwent SKY had no symptoms of depression at 4 weeks of practicing SKY- (remission rate of 67% at four weeks). SKY was found to be as effective as taking an antidepressant medication, minus the side effects of course. Another study at University of Pennsylvania looked at people suffering from MDD (Major depressive disorder) who did not respond well to antidepressants. More than half (54%) of the population who learnt and practiced deep breathing showed greater than 50% improvement in their symptoms.

Reduces stress and anxiety
Stress and Anxiety have become an integral part of the modern human experience, and also a cause of poor mental health and chronic diseases. Around 275 million people - 4% of the world’s population suffer from anxiety.
When we encounter a stressful situation, our brain triggers a cascade of neurochemical reactions that release cortisol, the primary stress hormone in our body. Over exposure to cortisol, like in chronic stress, can disrupt almost all of the essential processes in the body including digestion, immunity and sleep. A study conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences and NIMHANS, assessed the stress level of employees at Larsen and Turbo (LnT) Limited and found that the cortisol levels in employees who learned breathing practices, reduced by 23% in 3 months and 37% over 6 months. Employees also reported higher levels of life satisfaction and emotional regulation with the practice.
Italian studies showed, within two weeks of practice, the anxiety scores in patients of Generalized Anxiety Disorder dropped by almost half (48%) in the population.

Creates a state of relaxed awareness
Our brain works on electrical activity. Neurons communicate with each other via electrical impulses and create brain waves. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that detects electrical activity of these waves. One study, conducted on 43 practitioners of mind-breath disciplines found that long term practitioners showed a high increase in alpha as well as beta waves, implying a state of relaxed awareness.

Helps the brain to focus on the positive

When things are good, we experience a good quality of life. It is during the unexpected, unpleasant life experiences, that our brain goes into a tizzy. We experience negative emotions, and feel sad and isolated. In those moments, it becomes difficult to maintain a positive attitude.
A research study at National AIDS Research Institute, India found that those who practiced rhythmic breathing techniques practice, showed significant increase in the Quality of Life amongst the population with AIDS. When experiencing untoward and difficult life circumstances, the technique provided resilience and strength to focus on the positive and respond effectively to the situation.

(Author is a senior meditation teacher and the Executive Director, Sri Sri Institute for Advanced Research)
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