Curbing mental health crisis one breath at a time

The World Economic Forum claims that 12 billion working days are lost annually to depression and anxiety, which costs nearly $1 trillion in lost productivity per year

By Joseph Dana, Health Matters

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Published: Wed 17 May 2023, 11:32 PM

We can’t afford to ignore the global mental health crisis much longer. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions worldwide suffer from dangerous levels of depression and anxiety. Our always-connected lifestyles ironically wreak havoc on our ability to connect meaningfully with our loved ones and ourselves. The World Economic Forum claims that 12 billion working days are lost annually to depression and anxiety, which costs nearly $1 trillion in lost productivity per year.

As mental health challenges grow, new treatment avenues are opening up, and old ones are being reconsidered. In the United States, Australia, and Europe, psychedelics such as psilocybin and ketamine are being decriminalised to combat mental health challenges. But what if there was a simple solution under our noses that doesn’t require any outside medicine?

Historically, various cultures have used the breath for spiritual rituals, community cohesion, and mental health. For example, the breath animates consciousness in the Jewish mystical tradition. Three different Hebrew words in Jewish scripture mean or refer to the soul (nefesh, ruach, and neshama), and all are variations of words that mean “breath”.

In Eastern traditions, breathwork has been used to achieve different meditative and yogic states of consciousness. Many of these practices are thousands of years old, and anyone who has attended a yoga class has experienced their power.

In the late 1970s, the Czech-American psychologist Dr Stanislav Grof and his wife, Christina Grof, created a modern form of ancient yogic breathwork called Holotropic breathwork. The Grofs had been using psychedelics as a psychotherapeutic tool until they were outlawed in the 1960s. Their system was an intense form of breathwork that replaced psychedelics to help clients release trauma by accessing different states of consciousness.

I have been practising a form of holotropic breathwork called conscious connected breathing for the past several months to relieve stress and connect with myself on a deeper level. The breathwork sessions generally occur in a group, and we begin on our feet with blindfolds over our eyes. Music is a vital part of the session and is often played loud. The practice is straightforward. We breathe circularly with no pause between inhaling and exhaling. The breath starts in the stomach, fills the diaphragm, and then the exhale is relaxed like water falling over a waterfall. After a few minutes of standing breath, we lay down. Then the real work starts.

At first, the rational mind feels uncomfortable with the new and different breathing style. Eventually, you start to let go, and the breath begins breathing you. It’s common for first-timers to experience something called tetany. The muscles in the hands and forearms tense up, and you feel like you have frozen claws at the end of your arms. If you keep breathing, the feeling subsides.

Quieting the rational mind is one of the most critical therapeutic parts of the exercise. The rational mind desperately looks for something to hold on to, but if you can quiet it, the body takes over and releases locked stress and trauma. My sessions often end with an incredible release of physical emotion, leaving me wanting to hug myself.

Not all forms of breathwork are as intense as holotropic breathwork, which is not recommended for people with certain health conditions. For the better part of the last decade, Wim Hof, a Dutch wellness guru, has popularised his own form of breathwork for a mainstream audience. He has used his breathwork techniques and cold water immersion to pull off some truly incredible stunts, like attempting to climb Everest in little more than swimming shorts.

Hof has a 10-minute video introduction to his breathing technique that has been viewed millions of times in various languages on YouTube. The exercise is also straightforward. You take 30-40 intense breaths. After the final breath, you exhale entirely and then hold your breath. The magic happens during the breath retention.

Since you’ve pushed so much oxygen into your body during the first part, you can hold your breath for an unusually long time. You begin to feel tingly and almost light. You can feel your heartbeat and blood moving around your body. When you need air, take a deep breath and hold for 10 seconds. That’s one round. During breath retention, revisiting old memories in precise detail is common.

Hof argues that your breath is a door; it leads to corridors that take us deep within ourselves. Ordinarily, I would dismiss this rhetoric as new-age hot air but having experienced the power of breathwork; I’m forced to reassess my position. When you let your guard down, the breath can expand as big as the ocean, and you can swim in the depths of your subconscious. If you have 10 minutes, try it out for yourself and see. The mental health revolution might start with something as simple as our breath. —Project Syndicate

Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact. Twitter: @ibnezra

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