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2 Simple Breathing Techniques Proven to Help With Depression

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Maybe you’re one of the over 16.1 million people in the U.S. battling depression right now. Or maybe, like me, you’ve gone through a depressive episode in the last year, few years, or at some point in your life.

Maybe, also like me, depression is a topic that hits close to home because as a child, you watched one or both of your parents or other family members battle it.

If depression doesn’t run in your family, you’ve likely been impacted in some way through your community. For example, I just received word this morning that a friend’s husband died by suicide, leaving behind a widow and a little boy.

And even if you’re one of the few to not have had a direct encounter with this condition, you’ve likely been affected indirectly with news of very public depression-related suicides like fashion mogul Kate Spade and chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain.

The bottom line is that so very many of us are suffering in silence and we’re walking around feeling internally hopeless but outwardly OK. Millions of us wake up feeling despair or dread because we feel no way out of our situation.

If you’re feeling like nothing you do is helping, you’re not alone.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. today. It affects approximately 6.7 percent of the adult US population (over 16.1 million), affecting more women than men.

I’ve seen firsthand how this beast can debilitate families, not just individuals. I witnessed my mother battle with depression and bipolar disorder my entire childhood. I’ve seen her not leave her house for three years, and even attempt to take her own life at one point.

It can seem daunting when you learn that up to 30 percent of individuals living with major depressive disorder (MDD) don’t achieve full recovery via antidepressant medication.

But, there might just be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

It turns out that something as simple and overlooked as your own breath may be that missing little bit of sunshine needed to begin lifting the gray clouds from your gloomy days.

Recent studies seem to indicate that yogic breathing (pranayama) and certain breathing patterns and exercises can help ease symptoms that accompany depressed moods.

Researchers found significant improvement in mental, emotional and physical symptoms of depression with these two proven breathing exercises:

1. Coherent breathing.

One study looked at the effects of pairing a style of yoga known as Iyengar Yoga with a type of breathing exercise known as coherent breathing in the treatment of MDD.

Subjects were given two to three 90-minute yoga and coherent breathwork sessions along with homework for a period of 12 weeks.

At the end of the 12 weeks, a significant amount of subjects had scored the lowest level on the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) mood scale, a questionnaire used to track depressive symptoms.

This indicated a shift from major depression to minimal depression.

Coherent breathing is simple enough that you can practice it anywhere such as waiting in line at the store or at your work desk in the office because no one can tell you’re practicing it.

How to:

1. Breathe normally and through your nose.
2. Relax your shoulders, neck, face, jaw and mouth.
3. Inhale for six counts.
4. Exhale for six counts.
5. Repeat steps 3 to 4 for a minimum of five minutes. (It was practiced for 15-20 minutes in this study.)

2. Uujjayi breathing,

Ujjayi is a yogic breathing exercise also known as “warrior breath,” “ocean’s breath” or “Darth Vader breath.”

You gently constrict the back of your throat, which results in the breath sounding like ocean waves or a subtle hiss.

Practicing breath awareness whilst practicing this type of pranayama helps the body become more calm, while the mind becomes more focused.

Symptoms of depression often include an inability to focus or concentrate, so bringing mindful attention to your breathing will help address this.

One recent study reported that a breath-based meditative practice known as Sudarshan Kriya Yoga proved to be effective in reducing major depressive and anxious symptoms for individuals who didn’t fully respond to antidepressants.

Ujjayi breathing is one aspect of the Sudarshan Kriya practice, and it was also incorporated in the coherent breathing study mentioned above.

How do:

Remember to breathe through your nose, engage your lower belly, and tighten the back of your throat as you breathe to produce the ocean sound.

1. Sit comfortably and upright.
2. Relax the shoulders, neck, face, jaw and mouth.
3. Inhale for four counts.
4. Exhale for seven counts.
5. Repeat steps 3-4 for at least five minutes. (It was practiced for seven minutes in the Sudarshan Kriya study.)

As promising as these studies appear to be, these breathing exercises are not a magic pill. You don’t just practice this once and expect to immediately feel better.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 500-year-old yogic manual considered the most influential text on Hatha Yoga, states that:

“The mind is the king of the senses, but the breath is the king of the mind.”

Start slowly and become familiar with these two breathing techniques, and eventually make it a daily practice. Committing to just five to 10 minutes of consistent practice every day can create major ripples and lasting mental, emotional and physical change.

Don’t let the simplicity of these techniques fool you. Don’t underestimate the power of simplicity, the power of your own breath. Your breath is intimately tied to your mood and emotions and if you learn to take control of it, you may just eventually shift your mood with the help of your nose and lungs.

Follow this journey on the author’s website.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Originally published: April 14, 2023
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