For many, de-stressing means coming home, switching on the TV, putting your feet up and “zoning out” with what many believe is a mental distraction. While this may seem like a good ideal or a relaxing way to end your day is it an effective way of reducing the damaging effects of stress? The short answer is no.

In 1975 Dr. Herbert Benson coined what is called the ‘relaxation response’, this is a physical state of deep relaxation that engages the parasympathetic nervous system state, responsible for the stimulation of ‘rest and digest’ activities. By engaging in the parasympathetic state, we switch off the sympathetic nervous system state, also known as ‘fight or flight’. Being in this parasympathetic rest and digest state changes the physical and emotional responses to stress such as it decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure, slows the rate of breathing, and helps to reduce muscle tension. A more optimal environment for recovery.

The parasympathetic response is an active process of achieving calmness, relaxation and focus. There are many techniques in order to achieve this state and you will find various approaches work in different ways. At TSTMethod have many different tools at our disposal to choose from, and we are also looking to add more tools to our tool kits, why be limited to only a few? 

Some of the benefits of mindful breathing backed by scientific evidence include;

●      Relief of emotional stress and anxiety

●      Physical pain relief

●      Improved symptoms of depression

●      Improved physical performance & recovery

●      Increased energy and productivity

●      Improved quality of sleep

●      Improved cardiovascular function and health

●      Improved cognitive function and health

●      Intervention for diabetic treatment

The list goes on....

In this article we are going to dig  a little deeper into some of the research related to the benefits of deep breathing in relation to mental state and exercise recovery. In the final section we will provide ways to incorporate breathing practices into your daily routine and a practical follow along breathing session.

Mental state

Health problems related to mood, depression and anxiety to name a few have been growing at a rapid rate. Our modern culture places stressful demands on all of us ranging from job, financial, overworked, relationship, training, sleep, illness, family, etc..

Deep breathing has been used in many establishments as a form of cognitive behavioural intervention treatment for various psychological issues ranging from depression, anxiety, autism, cognitive distortions and obsessional cognitive disorder.[1] [2]Other studies have found numerous benefits, for example;

A deep breathing technique was taught to a group of students between the ages of 18 and 28 years to see whether such technique could improve mood and reduce stress. The study used a combination of both subjective (self-reported evaluation of psychological stress & profile of mood state) and objective measurements such as heart rate and the salivary cortisol. The study found that deep breathing was an effective way to improve mood and reduce stress.[3] The students had also noted they felt more happier, productive and in control with their emotions.

Another study worked with an objective to reduce psychological stress and anxiety took 60 pregnant women in preterm labour and taught them a modified deep breathing technique. This was prescribed 3 times a day for 3 days. The research concluded that those in the experimental group had significantly lower levels of emotional stress and anxiety, indicating that deep breathing could be an effective nursing intervention for pregnant women in preterm labour but also in many other circumstances.[4]

These are two of many studies on the benefits of deep breathing on mental health, it gives light to believe that spending some time to uptake more oxygen into our system in any given situation can help to reduce various mental stresses on a physiological level and is not just seen as placebo effect. Given we all live very different lives, and the type of stresses with encounter on a daily basis will be unique. We still commonly share this ability the sense or feel when our stress levels escalate or start to fatigue us through various signals such as mood, energy levels, memory, or physical performance. 

A good take away is to use breathing techniques before we get to this point of exhaustion, as a means to prepare the mind & body so we can keep up with our tasks and reduce the negative impacts of stress.

Exercise recovery - reduction of exercise-induced oxidative stress

Physical stress is known to increase oxidative stress (OS). This results from too many free radicals within the body, free radicals are molecules generated by the breakdown of oxygen during metabolic activity. While small amounts of OS is beneficial by influencing the cells to become stronger and resilient by increasing your body’s antioxidants.[5] prolonged high levels of OS can be harmful. Generally the exhaustive and prolonged forms of exercise such as a 5 set tennis match, marathon or intense CrossFit session can lead to undesirably high levels of OS, but for the unconditioned weekend warrior this can be far less. Harmful levels of oxidative stress has been known to contribute to health issues such as heart disease, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

For an athlete recovery is an essential component to optimal performance as well as staying healthy, strong, and mitigating injury. With multiple training sessions in a day there can be a very small window for recovery. However there are many other causes of oxidative stress such as nutritional, psychological[6], sleep quality to name a few. So whether you are the high end athlete or the busy employee of a firm that trains recreationally. With the addition of other forms of stress that contribute to oxidative stress it is important to address how to counteract excessive levels of OS.

A 2011 study took 16 athletes and put them through an exhaustive training session, and then divided into two groups. Subjects of the studied group spent an hour relaxing and performing diaphragmatic breathing in a quiet place. The other control group spent the same time sitting in an equivalent quiet place. The results demonstrated that the diaphragmatic breathing group had increased levels of antioxidant defence after exercise. These effects correlated with the decrease in cortisol and the increase of melatonin.[7] This is an important factor because post intense exercise cortisol production is increased, this decreases the body’s antioxidant defences and consequently high levels of cortisol correlates with high levels of oxidative stress, and it also inhibits enzymes responsible for the antioxidant activity of cells, and melatonin happens to be a potent antioxidant. As the study demonstrated deep breathing aids in reducing cortisol and increasing melatonin which will help reduce oxidative stress[8]. Something so simple can control the levels of cortisol post training and speed up the recovery between sets, intervals, and training sessions.

Steps to incorporate breathing into a daily practice;

1. Set a regular time to practice deep breathing, in the morning and/or evening.   For instance, during your commute to and from work. One habit that many successful professionals share in common is to have a morning routine, just ask Tim Ferris. A morning routine ensures consistency but also sets us up for the day, just like making a coffee and brushing your teeth a breathing practice can be added to your AM routine. Your energy levels will be higher and your mind will be more peaceful.  Start the day with the same intention that you hope to hold throughout the day.  If you start the day in a rush and thinking about 100,000 things, chances are your day is going to be stressful.  Taking 5 minutes to be still and calm can have HUGE impacts on your stress management ability. 

2. Before or after strength, conditioning & mobility training sessions. As discussed earlier deep breathing has a positive influence on our bodies ability to recover. Furthermore before training has been shown to improve performance levels. 

3. When life becomes stressful, find a quiet place, even if it means waiting for your lunch break to get out of the office. Use this opportunity to quickly disengage and focus on breathing which will be an effective distraction.  Try to find a park or get into nature which has also been shown to reduce stress.

4. Start small; the key is sustainability. Making this a daily practice starting with just 5 minutes a day for a few weeks and see how you feel. Once you have managed to build consistency, then consider ways to increase the total daily time spent practising deep breathing. Remember it can be broken up throughout the day or you could increase the duration of each session.

5. Share the experience with family, colleagues, friends. Sharing experiences plays an integral part in building communities and closer relationships, a part of health that deserves a lot more attention in our modern culture.  Breathing with others is a great way to create, sustain accountability in any practice.

To give you some guidance on one of the many breathing techniques we use click on the following link Expansive Diaphragmatic Breathing for a follow along video.

References:

[1] Brief cognitive behavioural intervention for depression and anxiety symptoms improves quality of life in chronic haemodialysis patients, lemma, A. et al. 2016

[2] Breathing exercise combined with cognitive behavioural intervention improves sleep quality and heart rate variability in major depression, Chien, HC, 2015

[3] The role of deep breathing on stress, Perciavalle, valentina et al. 2016

[4] Effects of abdominal breathing on state anxiety, stress, and tocolytic dosage for pregnant women in preterm labor, Yu, WJ et al.2010

[5]  Exercise, oxidative stress and hormesis. Radak Z, Chung HY, Koltai E, et al. Ageing Res Rev. 2008 Jan;7(1):34-42. Epub 2007 Aug 2. Abstract: https://pmid.us/17869589 | Full Text: https://goo.gl/A6G99

[6] Oxidative Stress & Anxiety, Relationship and Cellular Pathways, Bouayed, Jaouad, et al. 2009

[7] Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress

[8] Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress, Martarelli, Daniele, et al. 2011

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