Like a majority of mental health clinicians, I've practiced cognitive therapies since the early 1980s that are based on the premise that what people are thinking has a major influence on their emotions, their behavior and even their health. For example, people suffering from anxiety often have very negative thoughts about themselves and the future that cause unhappiness, unproductive behavior, and troubling physical symptoms.
For years, I focused on helping patients understand and redirect the thoughts that caused such heartache. But these days, I've been focusing my and their attention on an approach that is relatively new for me, yet widely used among my colleagues who practice holistic healing. I am teaching and demonstrating the power of conscious breathing.
"Breath is essential to life. It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we leave. In between that time, we take about half a billion breaths," notes Sheila Patel, M.D., who is the Chopra Center's medical director and a board-certified family physician. Patel and so many more holistic healers and traditional practitioners believe that each breath can provide a moment of healing — an opportunity to slow down our often over-worked brains that are troubled by the past and worried about the future. Using deep breathing techniques, we have the ability to create a state of mindfulness that pulls us firmly into the present — the only place where, for the moment, we are calm, feel safe, and can live fully, in our bodies.
I no longer believe that we can effectively help people reverse the activation of stress hormones and anxious thoughts associated with trauma and other conditions if we cannot first help them slow their racing minds, give their brains a focus, and create an atmosphere in which they can gain awareness of their strengths and positives. What I'm finding in my practice is that when patients learn to be more fully present through deep, slow, conscious breathing, this state of mindfulness greatly assists treatment. In fact, multiple studies conclude that for many patients, deep breathing and self-acceptance are often more effective for anxiety and wellness than medication.
One breathing technique that I practice is 4-7-8 yoga deep breathing, in which I inhale through my nose for a count of four, hold my breath for a count of seven, and then release the breath through my mouth with a whooshing sound for a count of eight. There are many other variations to yoga breathing that can easily be found online. All of them fill our bodies with oxygen, give it time to saturate into the cells and tissues, and then a long whoosh to clear and empty as much carbon dioxide from the lungs as possible.
Repeat the breathing exercise three or four times in a row, twice a day. It may take a little time for your body to take full advantage of the increase in oxygen. But once you begin to regularly use this breathing technique, you have a powerful new tool that will enable you to calm down, focus on the present, and decrease circular thoughts that trigger panic and anxiety.
That's because deep breathing helps reverse the physical and hormonal effects of panic and fear that are naturally bound to shallow breathing in a cause and effect cycle often referred to as "Fight-Flight-Freeze." In addition, a complete focus on breathing creates a state of mindfulness — of being just in the present — that enables us to be more thoughtful about immediate priorities and decisions. People use mindfulness to select healthy food, to fall asleep, and to help quit smoking — among many others.
I still use many traditional therapies to treat patients and we tackle all kinds of issues that have stood in the way of better health. But deep, slow, conscious breathing has become a foundational part of the therapy for every patient, and often, it is the "treatment" that helps the most.
Don Scherling, PsyD, works in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Berkshire Medical Center and is a behavioral health coach on the core wellness team of the Berkshire Health Systems & Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program.