Buteyko Breathing and Mental Disorders

Mental illness is at an all-time high in the US and worldwide. During the COVID pandemic, depression and anxiety rates are climbing.

Did you know that western, wealthier nations experience higher rates of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?

What causes the two most common disorders–depression and anxiety? Recent headlines speculate:

Few headlines mention the link between poor breathing and mental illness, however.

It can be difficult and often frustrating to find effective treatments for mental illness. The causes are mysterious and many of us who receive a diagnosis are prescribed drugs and not told about holistic approaches. 

Yet holistic treatment that boosts overall health like the Buteyko Method can be nothing short of a miracle for people who are trying to overcome mental illness.

Why holistic treatment?

Holistic refers to treating the whole person using gentle methods. Holistic treatment, for example, is more likely to use herbs rather than pharmaceuticals. This treatment approach also tends to investigate unique, individual history to get at root causes.

Buteyko breathing normalization is an example of holistic treatment because the method is gentle, non-invasive, treats the whole person, and is best learned with individual coaching.

But Buteyko breathing also affects the whole system (body) as it gains energy and simultaneously relaxes. Overall metabolism becomes more efficient, leading to weight loss. Exercise tolerance improves, resulting in more endurance and better muscle tone. The benefits of breathing correctly reinforce better health habits.

Effects of Buteyko breathing

Within the first few weeks of beginning a Buteyko practice, people notice physical and mental improvements:

  •     Waking up feeling calmer
  •     Feeling a sense of hope
  •     More normalized appetite
  •     Starting the day with more clarity and energy
  •     Ability to start an exercise program

While these experiences can be difficult to quantify and measure, for people with chronic depression or anxiety they signal a life-altering change. 

The Control Pause is the way to quantify and measure progress using the Buteyko method and is the cornerstone of the program. This simple measurement is the number of seconds a person can hold his or her breath, comfortably.

The Control Pause (CP) is used in many ways, but it is helpful for improving anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders from the very beginning:

  • Measuring the usual CP every morning at the same time
  • Measuring CP 15-30 minutes (or more) after an exercise session
  • Taking note of CP during stress or when feeling anxious

Case Study: Marcy’s morning CP

Marcy is 53 and recently reached a change of life or menopause. For most American women, this brings symptoms such as loss of libido, trouble sleeping, hot flashes, and increased moodiness. After trying several cures such as black cohosh, increased exercise, quitting sugar, and seeing a psychologist, she felt only slightly better.

Her biggest issue was sleeping through the night, which affected her concentration and mood all day.

She suffered from a lack of restful sleep and felt frustrated that she’d made a slow improvement. She usually woke up at 3 a.m. and was often irritable and tired in the morning. During the day, she had hot flashes any time she ate.

And lately, she had developed a problem with bloating, no matter what she ate. After a month of discomfort, she found the Buteyko method online after googling breathing and bloating.

She learned how to measure her CP and noted it was 11 in the morning.

She began by practicing 100% nasal breathing, including mouth taping at night. After only one night of mouth taping, she noticed an improvement in how she felt. Unexpectedly, Marcy woke up feeling about 10% sharper and noticed her longstanding brain fog had lifted a bit.

She signed up for a coaching session with a Breathing Specialist and soon learned to master the next step in the Buteyko method: breath holds.

Her symptom of bloat cleared up within three weeks and her morning CP had risen to 15.

The hot flashes continued but improved when she avoided heavy meals and, especially, any refined sugar. 

As her morning CP climbed, she noticed her mood brightened. She found she woke up more easily, immediately got out of bed, and was able to start a morning routine of walking 1 mile (while practicing breath holds) every day.

Her attitude, which had taken a tumble due to dealing with so many symptoms, did a 180-degree turnaround. It was early winter and yet she experienced none of her usual seasonal disorder.

Her morning CP had gone from 11 the first time she measured it, to 21 within three and a half months of daily practice. 

Breathing regulates how we feel

Many years ago, I learned yoga from a book. Within a few months, I could do a headstand! Reasoning that the book might contain more wisdom, I read the chapter on breath. The book explained that breath is connected with feeling and emotion. The two cannot be separated.

It went on to say, this is why cigarette smoking is so destructive. It numbs emotions.

That passage made me quit smoking (I took it up again five years late but was able to quit completely the second time). I didn’t want to be emotionally numb. It also helped me understand how breath and feelings are two strands of the same fiber.

Perhaps it seems to be an oversimplification to say that breathing is emotion but consider how hyperventilation affects us.

For example, it is well known that anxiety is tied to over-breathing, especially mouth-breathing.

According to the Buteyko method, nasal breathing automatically calms us because it directly effects the excitability of the nerve cells, which depend on the level of C02 in the lungs. Dr Novozhilov (the Russian patent holder of the Buteyko method and Dr. Buteyko’s successor), has explained the chain reaction: C02 concentration goes down, the nerve cells become more easily excited, and the person becomes more reactive to both outside events and inner thoughts. Gentle nasal breathing allows us to increase the CO2 level in the lungs and decrease excitability of nerve cells.  

For Marcy, the thought might be, I didn’t get any sleep last night–again!– this thought can trigger more over-breathing, starting a vicious cycle. Over time and with continued sleep deprivation and poor breathing, such thoughts can even lead to a panic attack.

As Marcy’s C02 levels rose and she established a greater tolerance to C02, the same thought might lead to a new pattern of learning to say, I got just as much sleep as I needed.

While many of us are tempted to self-blame for feeling anxious there is a physiological (bodily) reason for anxiety. Calmly breathing through the nose and practicing breath holds leads to more C02, while its opposite (chest breathing, shallow breathing, and fast breathing) diminishes C02 levels.

By practicing effective breathing techniques, it is possible to improve and even alleviate chronic anxiety. Since anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand, improved breathing also lifts mood.

The Breathing Center offers videos, low-cost materials, group classes, and one-on-one coaching to teach correct breathing. 

Is it worth trying a holistic method that has helped hundreds of thousands of people transform their health? The answer is a definite yes, and it is easy to get started.

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