We’ve all been in high-stress, anxiety-inducing scenarios. Life can be hard, you know? Instead of letting your nerves get the best of you, punching the malfunctioning printer, or lashing out at your micromanaging boss, just breathe. More specifically, try something called resonant breathing.
Surely you’ve gotten the advice to just relax and take some deep breaths if you’ve ever gotten a little too worked up. We’ll be the first to admit that focused breathing is not a new, groundbreaking discovery. But according to a March 2017 study published in Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a technique called coherent or resonant breathing really holds up when it comes to using a breathing exercise to combat major depressive disorder. “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,” study author Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College.
Here’s how to do it:
Take five breaths per minute, and keep it going as long as needed. This means each inhale will last six seconds, and each exhale six seconds. That’s it! Make sure your breaths are gentle, because the goal here is to balance your sympathetic nervous system — the one responsible for your “fight or flight” response — with your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate down, among other things. It is also recommended that you don’t count aloud or use a visual cue (a blinking light, etc.) to keep track of your seconds, as it could be a little too exciting for your sympathetic system.
This super simple breathing exercise has been celebrated by Gerbarg and her husband Richard Brown, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. The pair has considered this technique powerful enough to help patients with even the most severe mental conditions: survivors of genocides, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other mass disasters.
In the 2017 study by a team of researchers that includes Gerbarg and Brown, 30 people with major depressive disorder were given a regime of resonant breathing and Iyengar yoga to follow for three months. At the end of that period, the depressive symptoms in the participants had drastically dropped, as measured by a standard depression inventory test.
“Respiration is the only autonomic function we can voluntarily control,” Gerbarg says. That’s why the researchers believe changing your pattern of breath could shift the messages your brain receives and calm your nerves, anxiety, or depressive thoughts. Next time you’re really feeling the pressure at work, just take a minute, or six, to breathe.
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