The Breathing Cure

Feeling stressed? Sleepless? Scattered? These five simple breathing techniques can restore your sense of well-being

by Jennifer Matlack
Photograph: Illustration: Brian Stauffer

If you’re in need of a chill pill, nothing beats meditating. But 90 percent of Americans just don’t do it, for lack of interest or time or whatever reason. If you’re one of them, you should know there’s a stress-reduction alternative that’s a lot easier than assuming the lotus position. It’s called breathing—and we all do that. Active breathing, the process of simply paying attention to your inhalation and exhalation while you’re either sitting still or engaged in an activity, elicits the relaxation response, just as meditating does. The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress-induced fight-or-flight response that makes you jittery, says Emma Seppala, PhD, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“The physiological effects of mindful breathing are profound and almost immediate,” says Seppala, who coauthored a study on combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In her research, she found that vets who practiced various deep-breathing techniques for 21 hours over a span of one week showed a sharp decrease in several debilitating PTSD symptoms, including anxiety and startle response (an overreaction to sudden stimuli, such as a loud noise). This reduction in the physiological signs of post-traumatic stress lasted for one year, even in veterans who didn’t continue the breath work.

Reducing nervous tension also has a beneficial effect on your health. Becoming calmer quells stress-induced inflammation, which, when unchecked, increases your vulnerability to cardiovascular disease and other illnesses. In fact, recent research has found that chronic stress wears away the protective ends of your DNA, literally opening you up to illness. The opposite is also true: When you activate the relaxation response—by practicing active breathing or another mind-body discipline—you interrupt the stress cycle and bolster the health of your genes. In a 2013 Norwegian study, participants who practiced three different relaxation modalities (yogic breathing, yoga postures and meditation) experienced a threefold increase in the activity of genes in their immune cells compared with study subjects who relaxed by taking a nature walk.

Here, five active breathing exercises that can provide surprising benefits to your mind and body.

1. The Calming Breath
When your body responds to emotional stress, physiological changes can lock you in a tense cycle: Your heart races, your blood pressure increases, and your muscles tighten, among other unhelpful effects. To break that chain reaction and move into a more restful state, alternate breathing through one nostril at a time. Researchers in Nepal found that people who performed alternate nostril breathing (ANB, also known as nadi shodhana) for just 15 minutes every day for four weeks significantly increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the relaxation response. In the study, alternate nostril breathers decreased pulse and respiratory rate as well as diastolic blood pressure, the number that shows how much pressure is in the arteries between heartbeats. The technique has a twofold benefit for people with hypertension: According to a 2013 study in India, ANB triggers a drop in blood pressure while increasing the breather’s coordination. The exact mechanism isn’t clear, but experts speculate that ANB stimulates the hypothalamus to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions such as the rate at which your heart beats and the widening or narrowing of your blood vessels.

Try it: Press the fleshy part of your thumb against your right nostril. Exhale and inhale once through your left nostril. Release your thumb and press your index finger on your left nostril. Exhale and inhale once through your right nostril. Repeat for 27 rounds at least three times a day or practice for 20 minutes, ending with a left-nostril exhale. (For a demo, click here.) Why 27 rounds? Ancient sages believed that multiples of nine synchronize with body rhythms.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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