It's simple, accessible, and so successful that even PTSD survivors are finding healing through their own breath.
I’m kind of an anxious person, generally speaking, although I wouldn’t say that I have anxiety. I used to, though. For a period of time after my fourth baby was born, I was struck with such crippling anxiety that one day I couldn’t make myself step through my front door. It was bewildering (and frightening), and it took several months of medication and therapy before I started feeling like myself again.
Once I discovered martial arts, though, I found my anxiety subsiding. For a while I assumed it was just a benefit of exercise, but after switching from taekwondo to Camp Gladiator, I realized that wasn’t the case. When I took a break from taekwondo entirely, I began to notice my anxiety level slowly creeping upward. Exercise didn’t help — no matter how much I threw myself into it.
But one day, just to make sure I hadn’t forgotten them, I ran back through my forms. Forms are detailed, choreographed patterns of strikes, blocks, counterstrikes, and kicks that are ubiquitous in the world of martial arts. In taekwondo we call them poomsae — in karate, they’re kata. But the idea is the same.
I did them slowly, concentrating on matching my breaths correctly to the movements, being deliberate about the placement of my feet and the movement of my hands. When I was finished, I was only slightly sweaty — but I felt 100 percent less anxious.
I could literally see how the tension had left my shoulders when I looked in the mirror. It was almost miraculous how much happier and peaceful I felt. And that was the moment I realized that practicing forms had been, for two years, surrepticiously keeping my anxiety at bay.
It may have been a surprise to me, but it probably wouldn’t have surprised husband-and-wife psychiatrists Patricia Gerbarg and Richard Brown, who’ve spent years studying the breathing practices of traditional cultures around the world. They’ve taken that knowledge and developed a breath technique that has been so effective in alleviating anxiety and depression that they’ve even found success treating PTSD in survivors of war, tsunamis, and global disasters:
A key benefit of this breathing is that you can do it anywhere. It simply involves taking regular breaths in and out the nose, at a pace of five breaths per minute. (This translates into a count of six — one per second — for each inhalation and exhalation.) … The breath should be gentle, Gerbarg explains, because the aim is to balance the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) with the parasympathic (“rest and digest”) branches of the nervous system. When they first started looking into the restorative power of the breath, the prevailing rationale was that it sent extra oxygen to the brain. But the couple knew that explanation couldn’t justify the profound effects they were observing in people who did breathing practices. What’s more, some types of breathwork actually decrease oxygenation. The real reason it works, Gerbarg and Brown now believe, is because the vagal nerves — which connect the brain to the body, telling organs when to beat, breathe, digest, and the like — have been found in recent years to actually send even more messages in the other direction: from the body to the brain. “These ascending messages strongly influence stress response, emotion, and neurohormonal regulatory networks.”
What’s interesting about this is that as the taekwondo forms advance, they incorporate a period of slow movement and one deep breath in and out for a count of 12. The inhale and exhale don’t always end up being six seconds each, because the inhalation is matched with a movement, as is the exhalation. But put together, the count is 12.
I’ve spent the last few days trying Gerbarg and Brown’s “resonant breathing,” and while I haven’t found it as helpful as practicing my forms, I have absolutely noticed it having an immediate effect on the tension in my shoulders, neck, and jaw. I’ve also noticed that the deliberate practice of slowing down and breathing five times per minute leaves me feeling lighter somehow, refreshed and more energetic.
Personally, I think the combination of deliberate exercise and deliberate breathing is always going to be more effective in managing my anxiety. But since martial arts isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I think resonant breathing holds near-universal value — not just for those of us who suffer from anxiety, depression, or PTSD, but for anyone who’s human and gets irritated in traffic or overwhelmed by toddlers. It’s simple, easy, and truly refreshing to step away from everything — even just for one minute — and breathe.