Many people spend considerable amounts of time staring at screens each day, whether it is reading and writing emails or surfing the web. Activities such as these can cause us to inadvertently hold our breath, leading to headache, increased stress, fatigue and loss of concentration.
Email apnea, or screen apnea, has been linked to anxiety and depression as well as poor brain health. However, it can be easily remedied with conscious breathing exercises that encourage more sufficient breathing and improved mental health.
Screen apnea is believed to be caused by a communicational issue between the processes that control involuntary and voluntary breathing in the brain. Involuntary metabolic breathing is controlled by deeper parts of the brain traced farther back in evolution than the areas responsible for voluntary breathing – consciously breathing can help bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious functions in the brain and the body as well.
Conscious breathing has been shown to have an effect on emotional wellbeing and brain health, allowing for more positive mindsets and perspectives. A recent study by neuroscientists from the Bender Institute for Neuroimaging revealed a link between the ability to consciously control breathing and regulating one’s emotions. Brain scans on meditators and non-meditators revealed that activity in the rACC (rostral Anterior Cingulate Cortex) is linked to the effect of cognitive behavioral therapy on those suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Exercises for conscious breathing
Many types of breathing exercises have been studied, with one of the most effective forms proving to be ancient yoga practices known as Pranayama. The breathing exercises have been shown to release oxytocin, a hormone responsible for the activation of motivational and pleasure centers in the brain and have been used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of natural disasters.
An example of a Pranayama breathing technique is an equal breathing exercise. It would involve sitting in a relaxed position, noticing but not controlling one’s breathing, and counting to a certain number for inhaling and exhaling. The meditator will then slowly increase the number they are counting to, increasing the depth of their breathing. This will not only increase blood flow to the brain, but strengthen the connection between the conscious and autonomic processes of the mind as well.
How breathing affects anxiety
The link between breathing and anxiety is due to the body’s response to changes in levels of oxygen it receives. Neurotransmitters like serotonin are released with oxygen to the brain, reducing anxiety and regulating mood. When someone is having an anxiety attack, they exhale more than they inhale, depriving their brains of oxygen. One of the reasons that anxiety attacks can become intense so quickly is that anxiety in general causes people to be shallow breathers, reducing the oxygen to their brains and increasing their anxiety in turn.
The cycle of inadequate oxygen to the brain and anxiety can be stopped with exercises and by focusing on breathing slowly and calmly. Oxygen therapy is sometimes administered also (usually in traumatic events or in cases of hypothermia), but is uncommon since it is expensive and requires the supervision of a physician. In addition to increasing levels of anxiety, a lack of oxygen from shallow breathing reduces the amount of glucose the brain can use, leading to symptoms such as lethargy and depression.
A lack of blood oxygen to the brain weakens the immune system, creating many potential health issues and has been linked to shorter life spans in general. In addition to practicing meditations to regulate conscious breathing, anxiety can also be reduced by decreasing the stressors the body is subjected to. Drinking coffee and even strenuous exercise have been found to lead to lower blood oxygen levels, causing fatigue and releasing stress hormones.
Anxiety and low blood oxygen have a reciprocal causal relationship, with both leading to increases in one another. In order to prevent the cycle from spiraling out of control, it is imperative to practice exercises to prevent shallow and irregular breathing. For those with more extreme cases of anxiety and breathing issues, mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy has also proven to be effective.
With all the medications and psychotherapies employed in the treatment of anxiety disorders, the most effective treatment of all may be to just breathe. If you would like to learn more about anxiety disorders in general, feel free to contact Sovereign Health of California at (866) 819-0427, or visit sovcal.com
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