Breathwork vs. Therapy vs. Medication?
Overcoming mental health conditions is a challenging experience. Everyone is different and assigning a universal treatment approach to each person struggling just won’t work. Many treatment plans involve trial and error as you attempt to find a personalized solution suited for your unique needs and preferences.
In the modern world of healthcare, a high emphasis on pharmaceutical interventions leads many individuals to overlook effective holistic treatments (like breathwork) right in front of them. It’s true that medication can be a life-changing step for many and should be considered with care and without stigma. For many others, mental health is best treated with a custom combination of therapy, medication, and holistic interventions.
While some holistic interventions can be chalked up to old wives’ tales passed down through generations and persisting throughout the ages, there are plenty of natural activities and practices that can significantly improve one’s mental health condition. Research tackled the debate between fact and fiction, investigating the empirical validity of traditional alternative treatment techniques.
Breathwork is among one of the popular alternative treatment interventions investigated. Can improving your mental or physical health really be as easy as participating in some guided breathwork? It may sound too good to be true, but science says yes! Of course, there is more to breathwork than simply breathing.
Does It Really Help to Take a Deep Breath?
It seems rather cliché to tell someone to “take a deep breath” when they need to calm down or reevaluate their situation. In fact, without familiarity behind the suggestion, the comment may seem offensive. Despite its simplicity, many people report that taking a long deep breath really does help, but is it all placebo effect?
Researchers have found that taking deep breaths is verifiably helpful for a number of health conditions. Guided breath training is an effective way for those with lung and breathing conditions to improve their conditions and build up their strength. Lung cancer patients are one population that often participates in breathing training1 for rehabilitation purposes when the lungs are weak, damaged, or atrophied. While there is an obvious connection between breathing and lung damage, there are a plethora of other health conditions improved by breathing training.
For an objectively measurable example, take chronic kidney disease research. In Effectiveness of a Breathing Training Program on Quality of Life in Patients with Predialysis Chronic Kidney Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial 2 (2020), researchers found that breathing exercises significantly improved the condition of predialysis patients across both their physical and mental measures for quality of life.
What could these breathing exercises offer for those suffering from mental health conditions?
Breathwork and Mental Health
Breathing and the mental state are more connected than they may appear at first glance. Though many people tend to see psychological and physical health as distinct from each other, they are deeply interconnected. Mental health and physical state are unattachable with one another, going hand and hand from both directions. Take exercise for example. Not only are exercise and nutrition crucial for the body’s physical health and maintenance, but they also bring positive impacts for mental health, dopamine, and serotonin levels.
Whether or not you consistently realize it, your state of mind impacts the body (and vice versa). There are a lot of interesting models to refer to which demonstrate this close relationship between the two.
Did you know that “putting on a smile” leads some people to report higher levels of happiness? Researchers back in 1988 published their findings3 that participants who were instructed to bite down on a pen to mimic a smile actually reported feeling happier during the trials. The whole concept of facial feedback implies that your body takes physical influences, such as muscle contractions, and translates them into emotional responses.
Many experts theorize that emotions are “biologically evident4.” Sure, there are aspects of emotion that are reflections of society. Evidence suggests they are much more than some intangible manifestation. Although there is some debate over the exact directionality between the close relationship, experts agree that emotions and physiological state influence another in some manner. In summary, science long demonstrated that emotions and mental illness are not just “in your head.”
What exactly does this mean for breathwork and breathing? Breathing variation is significantly influenced5 by mental activity. Try to think about how your breathing patterns are disrupted when a person is about to cry or even how their breathing quickens and becomes shallower during a panic attack. Many people find it helpful to practice breathing training to relieve themselves of anxiety states6 – correcting “fight or flight” breathing patterns with intentional calming breathing to move their bodies back toward “rest and digest.”
Breathing offers a powerful tool for healthcare providers to pass along to their patients. Imagine optimizing these strategies in coordination with classic medical interventions as a comprehensive approach to offering the best relief possible for patients.
This is the idea behind “conscious breathing,” sometimes called “breathwork.” Conscious breathing brings the power and impact of breath to a whole new level in order to offer symptom relief and a general sense of enhanced well–being.
Getting a little introduction into the powerful world of conscious breathing is a great first step towards exploring holistic treatment options for mental health, trauma, and addiction. Learning the foundations and applications of breathwork practices may help a person understand why these breathwork strategies are worthwhile to incorporate into so many treatment plans.
What Is Conscious Breathing?
As the name implies, conscious breathing refers to an umbrella of intentional breathing techniques or breathwork. We need air to live, and breathing is a primary autonomic activity that just comes naturally to us. Our body is sure that we continue to inhale and exhale, whether we are thinking about it or not. These systems are responsible for keeping us breathing during concentration or sleep.
Although they are involuntary actions, you can override your breathing patterns to a certain degree. By taking control of and manipulating your breath, you perform conscious breathing. There are many different types of conscious breathing exercises that some therapists use in the counseling process.
The two most common breathwork techniques are circular breathing and conscious connected breathing. The two practices can be utilized in a variety of settings with various aims and themes.
- Circular Breathing: Circular breathing involves taking in very full, deep breaths. Individuals are instructed to inhale slowly and fill their lungs, followed immediately by a steady exhale.
- Conscious Connected Breathing: Speed up circular breathing, and you get conscious connected breathing. Rapid but full breaths are used in these exercises.
While these breathing exercises help a person learn to regulate breathing, there is a deeper goal to the breathwork practices. Many believe that effectively participating in breathwork exercises may induce an altered state of consciousness and offer therapeutic benefits for the mind and body.
The History of Conscious Connected Breathing as Breathwork
Conscious connected breathing is hardly a new technique. Humans performed special breathwork strategies for centuries for several different reasons. Perhaps most interesting is that many civilizations believed that this type of intentional breathing exercise helped connect individuals spiritually. These people believed breathing was much more than simply taking air into the lungs. They described the activity as taking in a spiritual life force.
You don’t need to dig very far to find the connection between breathing and spirituality. In fact, the English word “spirit” originated from the word for “a breath” in Latin. This relationship is not limited to the English language. Similar origins can be found in Indian philosophy, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Greek.
These ancient civilizations believed in a strong relationship between breath, mind, and spirit. Many had long traditions of incorporating breathwork into ceremonies. In some cases, the exercises were there for healing purposes. In Shamanic cultures across the globe, breathwork was a platform to connect to alternate states of consciousness.
They reported that engaging in the activities facilitated a feeling of unity with the world. Traditionally, it was a cosmic experience that helped one become “one” with themselves and the universe. Aside from providing a religious or spiritual experience, many reported a comforting sense of euphoria from the practice – leading some breathwork to be termed “holotropic breathwork.”
The practices have long persisted, and many people continue to report these same feelings from the age-old techniques. Some people even say that they get a euphoric, tingling sensation from performing conscious connected breathing. Although these exercises never fully disappeared, breathwork techniques rose in therapeutic practice use around the 1970s.
Trained professionals help guide their students through these breathwork techniques and experiences. It’s advised to ease your way into this activity with experienced assistance and the guidance of your medical provider.
Who Benefits from Conscious Connected Breathing?
There are many beneficial applications for conscious connected breathing that allow a range of clients to benefit from breathwork training. Many individuals practice breathwork exercises solely for euphoria or for relaxation. Others find that conscious connected breathing helps them take control of their lives and manage their health conditions by allowing them to process underlying emotions and thoughts intentionally and without interruption.
With proper guidance from their medical and clinical providers, many clients can participate and benefit from these practices. Therapeutic breathwork for those in a healthy physical state can help clients process emotions sitting just under the surface – sometimes negative and sometimes positive. It can also bring a person to a state of relaxation that can help them regain control over toxic mental states. This sense of control, hope, and wholeness is a crucial tool for overcoming traumatic experiences and dependency.
The euphoria and potentially altered states of consciousness are temporary and, in the moment effects of breathwork, but the mental processing you achieve during these exercises can persist outside the session and into the rest of your life. No matter what your struggles are, breathwork gives you time to set aside distractions and spend some time in introspection.
These same experiences also help you feel whole. Conscious connection breathing a great technique for learning to feel content while going through change. Finding security and comfort in knowing what you are feeling and why is a milestone in personal growth and recovery that can mark turned corners and breakthrough moments.
Does Conscious Connected Breathing Really Work?
When trying to better yourself, do what works for your situation. There are plenty of people who report that conscious connected breathing helped them improve their mental health. If it’s effective for you, that’s as simple as it needs to be. What works for you may not work for others and vice versa. Always talk with your providers to make sure breathwork is a safe endeavor for you before you begin.
Even if conscious connected breathing doesn’t bring you into a higher mental state or feel spiritual, the guided breathing and mediation that comes with these exercises can positively impact your brain functioning7. Discovering a safe and effective way to feel relaxed and process emotion is a common short-term outcome too.
Can Conscious Connected Breathing Replace My Current Treatment?
Conscious connected breathing may be an effective tool for clients struggling with mental health, addiction, or trauma. At All Points North Lodge, we recommend that it be used in coordination with classic evidence-based interventions such as therapy and medication when appropriate.
Breathwork is a low-risk treatment option for many clients looking for natural approaches to improving or managing their conditions. However, it is not suitable for all clients. Underlying health conditions should be discussed with your doctor prior to trying breathwork. It is important to note that breathing exercises can certainly help manage conditions and stress but cannot and should not replace life-saving medication or be relied on during an emergency.
Conscious connected breathing is most effective when led by a trained professional. Working with experienced experts gives you your best chance at making the most of any treatment while effectively managing any risk.
Many incorporate conscious connected breathing into their therapeutic treatment plans in combination with other effective techniques. Talk directly with your physician and counselor so that you can make a safe and informed decision.
If you’re interested in learning more about conscious connected breathing and other treatment options, contact us at All Points North Lodge today. We want to help guide you through your recovery while facilitating personal growth and empowerment. Our interdisciplinary team of experts has the passion and experience to help you overcome your biggest obstacles.
Written by Brittni Devlin
Reviewed and Edited by the team at All Points North Lodge
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- Liu, X., MD, Wang, Y., MD, & Xie, J., PhD. (2019). Effects of Breathing Exercises on Patients With Lung Cancer. Oncology Nursing Forum, 46(3), 303-317. doi:10.1188/19.onf.303-317
- Kharbteng, L., Monaliza, Kumar, V., Kaur, S., & Ghai, S. (2020). Effectiveness of a Breathing Training Program on Quality of Life in Patients with Predialysis Chronic Kidney Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Indian journal of palliative care, 26(3), 271–275. https://doi.org/10.4103/IJPC.IJPC_118_19
- Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768–777. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1998
- Barrett, L. F. (2012). Emotions are real. Emotion, 12(3), 413–429. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027555
- Mador, M. J., & Tobin, M. J. (1991). Effect of Alterations in Mental Activity on the Breathing Pattern in Healthy Subjects. American Review of Respiratory Disease, 144(3_pt_1), 481-487. doi:10.1164/ajrccm/144.3_pt_1.481
- Gilbert, C. (2003). Clinical Applications of Breathing Regulation: Beyond Anxiety Management. Behavior Modification, 27(5), 692–709. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445503256322
- Sharma H. (2015). Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu, 36(3), 233–237. https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-8520.182756