‘Mind-body’ nerve reveals why a simple breathing technique could manage depression

Everyone feels sad or depressed from time to time. And we all know what it’s like to be so anxious and nerved up about something that you can’t even think straight.

But when these conditions (which often go hand in hand) become the norm, we’re usually talking about a diagnosable state of chronic depression and/or anxiety.

The “go-to” treatment for these states is medication. More specifically, antidepressants.

The more we learn about antidepressants, the more insidiously dangerous and even deadly we know them to be. Too often, drug companies and even doctors conceal the dangers from patients until they’re hooked or, even worse, until a fatal result occurs.

For example, pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Klein tampered with research proving that their antidepressant Paxil increases suicide risk in adults.

So where do people turn when they need relief from the daily burden of major depression and anxiety? Are antidepressants the only answer?

Fortunately, the answer is a resounding NO. In fact, by looking at an age-old traditional practice, mental health professionals are beginning to offer another option to manage depression that is safe, free, and always available.

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What yogis know about mental health

The ancient practice of yoga offers research-based benefits for people dealing with depression. Study after study proves the positive mental health effects of a regular yoga practice. But the big impact doesn’t come from just striking a pose…

One of the main tenets of yoga practice is yogic breathing. Breathing changes based on the body’s requirements and actions or feelings. Just as exercise changes the tempo or depth of breathing, so can mental activities. That’s where yogic breathing techniques can help.

Yoga teaches that breathing can calm the mind, balance left and right brain, even lower blood pressure. The ancient yogis knew that we could either calm or arouse ourselves simply by changing the depth and pacing of our breath.

Now, mental health professionals are beginning to tap into this wisdom and offer it to patients who live with major depression and anxiety.

Resonant breathing

Resonant breathing is a technique that works because it taps into some of our body’s basic neurological functions, says Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College.

“We wanted to identify a short program that could be quickly given to people, that they would have immediate relief within five or ten minutes, and that over time would produce long-term changes,” says Gerbarg.

One recent Boston University study had thirty patients with major depression practice this type of breathing, along with Iyengar yoga, for three months. After that time, the patients’ depressive symptoms had significantly decreased when measured by a standard depression inventory test.

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Resonant breathing is performed by taking regular, deep, but gentle, breaths in and out through the nose at a pace of five breaths per minute (a count of six for each inhalation and exhalation). The great thing is that this can be done to manage depression without anyone knowing, any time of the day.

Why does this simple technique help manage depression?

According to Gerbarg, it all has to do with a nerve that is arguably the most important one in our bodies.

The vagus nerve is the long, meandering bundle of nerves that connects brain and body. It tells our heart when to beat, our lungs when to breathe, our stomach when to digest… basically, it keeps our bodies working.

Recently, though, it’s been found that even more messages go in the other direction: from our body back to our brain. Apparently, these “ascending” messages have a strong influence on our moods, emotions, and hormonal responses to events.

It’s time to embrace this practice

Cynthia Stonnington, chair of the department of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, encourages therapists and their clients to embrace the practice of resonant breathing as a safe option to manage depression.

“Many people find benefit, no one reports side effects, and it’s something that engages the patient in their recovery with actively doing something.”

Stonnington believes that if more mental health professionals offered this option, “it could entice more patients to seek care because the option of using a variety of modalities, not all involving medications, is appealing to many people.”

Given what we know about the hazards of antidepressants, this seems like a truly wise option.

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.