In the last decade many scientific studies have been published, confirming what ancient wisdom has known for millennia. The breath is incredibly powerful, it can deeply affect our bodies and minds in many positive ways. 

Breathing practises may allow us to process and move through feelings of anxiety, depression, and other difficult emotions, feelings of lack of purpose and motivation and even help heal trauma such as PTSD as well as provide us with a greater understanding of life through ‘peak’ experiences. It is very exciting that breathwork is becoming more popular, as more people around the world realise the amazing power of the breath and discover that they have the complete ability to heal themselves from within.

In this video we’re going to look at the positive psychological benefits of breathwork, for mental health and overall wellbeing.

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, stress or experience difficult emotions you’re not alone. In our society, rates of anxiety and depression are at the highest they have ever been1. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications are commonly prescribed, many of which have questionable efficacy and have undesirable side effects including health issues and high costs. 

A 2014 meta analysis which looked at all the available scientific literature on antidepressants sparked huge scientific and public controversy after stating that the placebo effect can explain the apparent effectiveness of antidepressants – essentially saying that antidepressants aren’t any more effective than placebo2

Breathwork appears as though it may be more effective in treating depression than medications and doesn’t appear to have any negative side effects3,4

In the last decade a lot of research has come out which is helping to confirm what ancient wisdom has known for thousands of years. The breath is incredibly powerful. It can deeply affect the physiology and psychology of our bodies and minds.

One reason why breathwork is so effective is that the breath affects the physiology of the whole body. When you are breathing you are literally changing the physiology of your entire body. This compares to current medications which can only affect certain neurotransmitters in the brain. We know that depression and anxiety, for example, are more than just an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain – they are related to the condition of our bodies as a whole4.

In a study comparing participants practising slow breathing, versus a control group who did nothing found that the slow breathing group had significantly improved mental function, ability to sustain attention for longer periods of time and had significantly reduced levels of cortisol (which is an important marker for stress levels) suggesting that long deep breathing is a very effective and natural way to destress without the need for any drugs or medications5! How cool is that!

A 2015 study looking at all the research to date about the physiology of breathing and its effect on emotional states such as depression, anxiety and stress concluded that slow, deep breathing is a very effective treatment for all of these conditions through the way it shifts our nervous system from sympathetic dominance (‘fight and flight’ activation) to parasympathetic dominance (basically our ‘rest and digest’ nervous system)4.

Several more studies support these findings that the breathing techniques in yoga and meditation are very effective for alleviating stress, anxiety and depression through their physiological effects on the body. They may also be very helpful in maintaining mental function as we age6,7. What techniques are we talking about here? In these studies they used a combination of slow breathing and faster rhythmic breathing.

There are also several more scientific studies that have come out in the last decade further confirming the powerful benefits of breathing for alleviating depression, anxiety, stress and PTSD3,8. Some of the most common psychological problems in our modern world1.

So it’s now clearly scientifically established that slow deep breathing is a very effective treatment for depression, anxiety and stress. Let’s look at how some more intense breathing techniques may help us to heal through the safe processing and release of difficult or unpleasant emotions and help us gain new clarity and perspective on our lives9.

Dr Alan Hobson, a leading brain researcher and Havard Psychiatrist says that “the breath is the link between the conscious and unconscious processes in the brain”. This is partly because the unique physiological structure of the diaphragm allows it to be controlled consciously or unconsciously, creating a bridge between the conscious and unconscious processing in the brain.

By connecting the brain in these new and novel ways we may be able to stimulate the safe processing and release of difficult emotions9.

This may be through the way intense breathing helps to disrupt rigid patterns in neural networks in the brain and stimulates the release of these patterns such as unresolved emotional conflicts or trauma-related emotional problems providing relief for people suffering from long-term anxiety, depression or PTSD6.

A form of this intense breathwork was developed by Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof who had great success working therapeutically with patients using breathing techniques which are essentially based off the same intense breathing practises found in yoga. They found these breathing techniques were a successful way to reach healing states of consciousness10

In 2013 a very large study of over 11,000 participants over 12 years found that this form of breathwork was a safe therapy that offered significant benefits in terms of emotional healing and release. They found that out of the 11,000 participants practising this breathwork over more than 12 years, not a single one had an adverse physiological or psychological reaction indicating that it is a low-risk therapy that can support patients with a wide range of psychological problems including anxiety and depression and trauma. So much so that breathwork is now considered a valuable therapeutic tool9.

Another study on this type of fast breathing found that after just one session, participants had a significant reduction in anxiety levels, further supporting the evidence that these intense breathwork practises are effective treatments for those with anxiety11. This is why it is now being increasingly used as a therapeutic tool to treat anxiety12.

A study also found that this breathing technique helped people to discover more purpose in their life and that 12 months following a single breathwork session, participants had significantly increased well being and life satisfaction and some participants even rated the breathwork session as a ‘peak’ experience, or one of the more important experiences in their life (similar to falling in love, getting married, or even having a child)13. This small pilot study shows the massive potential for these breathing techniques to not just help with depression and anxiety but may also help with finding greater purpose and satisfaction in life. More research into this would be amazing!

What sort of intense breathing are we talking about here? Circular connected breathing, meaning you are breathing fully in and out with no pause between the inhale or exhale, if you’re familiar with yoga it’s somewhat similar to the yogic breathing technique bhastrika. If you want to give it a try check out my guided practise 10 minute guided breathwork to feel amazing. 

Finally, another amazing study was conducted by researchers at the Stanford Research Institute. War Veterans suffering from PTSD participated in a week-long workshop practising the same yogic breathing techniques we discussed earlier (beginning with slow, deep breathing and then including faster rhythmic breathing). They found that PTSD scores were significantly reduced in a one month follow up, and remained reduced even a year later. This is a remarkable finding for treating a disorder that causes such high substance abuse & suicide rates in veterans and that is normally treated with expensive medications that aren’t very effective14. This further supports the evidence that breathwork is a very effective treatment for supporting people with trauma and PTSD15.

Conclusion

As we have discussed in this video in the last decade many exciting scientific studies have been published, helping to confirm what ancient wisdom has known for millennia. The breath is incredibly powerful, it can deeply affect our bodies and minds in many positive ways. 

Breathing practises may allow us to process and move through feelings of anxiety, depression, and other difficult emotions, feelings of lack of purpose and motivation and even help heal trauma such as PTSD as well as provide us with a greater understanding of life through ‘peak’ experiences. It is very exciting that breathwork is becoming more popular, as more people around the world realise the amazing power of the breath and discover that they have the complete ability to heal themselves from within.

If you liked this video and want to learn more about the history of Breathwork and how Breathwork actually affects our bodies check out my other video How does Breathwork affect our bodies? – The History and Physiology of Breathwork (coming soon!)

References 

  1. National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). Common Mental Health Disorders: Identification and Pathways to Care. Leicester (UK): British Psychological Society; 2011. (NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 123.) 2, COMMON MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92254/
  2. Kirsch I. (2014). Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie, 222(3), 128–134. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000176
  3. Lalande, L., Bambling, M., King, R. et al. Breathwork: An Additional Treatment Option for Depression and Anxiety?. J Contemp Psychother 42, 113–119 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10879-011-9180-6
  4. Jerath, R., Crawford, M. W., Barnes, V. A., & Harden, K. (2015). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 40(2), 107–115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8
  5. Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
  6. Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2009). Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172, 54–62. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04394.x
  7. Saoji, A. A., Raghavendra, B. R., Madle, K., & Manjunath, N. K. (2018). Additional Practice of Yoga Breathing With Intermittent Breath Holding Enhances Psychological Functions in Yoga Practitioners: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Explore (New York, N.Y.), 14(5), 379–384. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2018.02.005
  8. Zope, S. A., & Zope, R. A. (2013). Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. International journal of yoga, 6(1), 4–10. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.105935
  9. Eyerman, J. (2013). A clinical report of Holotropic Breathwork in 11,000 psychiatric inpatients in a community hospital setting. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Bulletin Special Edition, 23(1), 24-27.
  10. Grof, S (1973). Theoretical and empirical basis of transpersonal psychology and psychotherapy: Observations from LSD research. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology ,5 (1):
  11. Puente, Iker & Cervantes, Julio. (2014). Effects of Holorenic Breathwork on Anxiety and Heart Rate Variability: Preliminary Results. Journal of Transpersonal Research. 6. 134-142. 
  12. Rhinewine, Joseph & Williams, Oliver. (2007). Holotropic Breathwork: The Potential Role of a Prolonged, Voluntary Hyperventilation Procedure as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.). 13. 771-6. 10.1089/acm.2006.6203. 
  13. Puente, Iker. (2014). Effects of Holotropic Breathwork in Personal Orientation, Levels of Distress, Meaning of Life and Death Anxiety in the Context of a Weeklong Workshop: A Pilot Study. Journal of Transpersonal Research. 6. 49- 63. 
  14. Seppälä, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T., Perlman, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military veterans: a randomized controlled longitudinal study. Journal of traumatic stress, 27(4), 397–405. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.21936
  15. Donald, B. (2013). Breathing exercises help veterans find peace after war, Stanford scholar says. Stanford University. https://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/may/veterans-breathing-study-052213.html