What is Conscious Breathing
Conscious breathing forms the foundation of most meditation and mindfulness practices. It is becoming ever more popular with its origins deeply rooted in Buddhist practice. But as science and technology grows, we are finding that it has phenomenal benefits for our mental health due to the effect it has on our nervous system. Conscious breathing in itself is just that, it is being fully aware and conscious as we breath in a prescribed way to become more mindful of the moment.
Mindfulness originally was brought into western culture by Jon Kabat-Zinn who at the time was an American Professor of Medicine working in a pain clinic at Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. He found that some patients were continuing to have debilitating pain that was ruining their quality of life despite being at the maximum dose of pain medication. With an interest in Buddhism, he brought mindfulness into their treatment plans and found that it helped many cope with their pain and be able to return to a more normal life.
I often try to understand mindfulness in terms as 'zoning in' rather than meditative 'zoning out'. This can include participating in the moment with all of our senses, being aware of our thoughts but not acting on them or judging them. One of the most common and easy to access ways to do this is to use conscious breathing as an anchor point.
Since then, lness has been incorporated into many new versions of cognitive behavioural therapy such as dialectical behaviour therapy, compassion focused therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy. As well as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). These therapies have used mindfulness to reduce anxiety, depression, help with flashbacks from trauma and PTSD, improve the functioning and reactions of those with borderline personality disorder.
Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression
Robust research studies have shown mindfulness through the process of conscious breathing is more effective than anti-depressant medication that is often prescribed for anxiety and depression. We use mindfulness in various ways to help with anxiety and depression.
We can observe the moment and be aware of what is going on for us; learning not to struggle with it prevents amplifying the emotions. Often, we find that we add to existing problems with self-critical talk or judgements that mean we end up more anxious or feeling unhelpful secondary emotions. For example, if I was feeling anxious, I might then think “Oh my god not again, why do I feel like this!” meaning I am now anxious and angry making the situation worse. So, when we practice mindfulness we can be aware of this anxiety without struggling with the urge to think anything else or act on it, we may still feel anxious at times, that’s normal, but we don’t get into a spiral.
Other times we might use conscious breathing to be present in the moment. If we are fully in the moment, we’re focusing on that and not letting negative thoughts in. This can increase our enjoyment of activities and reduce the amount of anxious or depressed thoughts we have.
Grounding for PTSD and Trauma
Mindfulness always forms a part of the treatment plan for those who have experienced trauma. We use it to ‘ground’ someone in the present, this can be to reduce the feelings of dissociation, derealisation and depersonalisation. Or to interrupt a flashback and help someone live in the now rather than being trapped in the fragmented memory.
Grounding can be done in a variety of ways as we use any of the 5 senses to do this. For example, we might help someone by have something they can taste like sharp sweets, have something comforting to smell, have a texture to feel, something positive to look at and their favourite sounds to listen to. These are great to focus on and live in that moment. We can also use the conscious breath as a way of anchoring in the moment, because no matter where you are you always have your breath with you to help.
Personality Disorder and Mindfulness
When working with personality disorder, specifically borderline personality disorder a key part of dialectical behavioural therapy is mindfulness. This is because when someone is emotionally dysregulated we can use conscious breathing and other grounding techniques mentioned above to help someone get through very distressing times. As a result, mindfulness helps with distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness resulting in better coping skills, improved relationships and curbed impulsivity. This is in part due to how conscious breathing improves our awareness of what we are feeling, why and what is going on around us. This gives some wiggle room to make a choice rather than be ruled by our emotions.
Conscious breathing improves awareness of what we are feeling, why and what is going on around us. This gives some wiggle room to make a choice rather than be ruled by our emotions.
The science of conscious breathing
As previously mentioned, whilst conscious breathing can feel as though it is just a relaxing exercise it has a profound effect on our nervous system, which is why it works. When we begin to bring our awareness to the breath there are a few hormonal changes that happen. We cease to produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This means that our body changes from being hyper alert and looking for a threat to knowing that everything is safe and that we can rest.
In addition to this studies have shown that regular meditative practices reduce the effects of age-related frontal cortex thinning. What this means is that with regular practice there is less of decay of the front part of brain, the part that is associated with memory. A later study showed that it increased the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation regulation of emotions. Whereas, the amygdala, the part of brain that triggers fight or flight was reduced.
With all these benefits it’s no wonder that conscious breathing is a great thing to be doing. Luma³ is a great way to introduce this to my patients so that they can start to breathe more and feel better.
This is a guest post by Dr Gregory Warwick who is a chartered psychologist and runs Quest Psychology Services, the award-winning psychology practice that provides counselling and therapy for a variety of mental health problems.