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Breathing For Anxiety Disorders: One Size Does NOT Fit All

Anxiety Disorders

As a brain-based education and training system, Z-Health has been focused on the concept of customized training protocols for over two decades. When you spend time working with thousands of clients it quickly becomes apparent that each individual nervous system has unique characteristics and responses that require personalized programming to maximize results.  This personalized approach is particularly beneficial for individuals dealing with anxiety disorders.  

In that vein, this week we are going to dive into the necessity of using customized breathing programs to help deal with the most prevalent health conditions worldwide: anxiety disorders. While these disorders infiltrate every corner of an afflicted individual’s life, they often go unnoticed and untreated, especially in primary healthcare settings.

The connection between breathing and anxiety is well-established, with a bidirectional relationship noted between respiratory symptoms and anxiety disorders. People with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more prone to anxiety and depression, and vice versa. Despite this, mainstream treatments for anxiety disorders often overlook breathing interventions. 

A recent review (https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3425/13/2/256) highlighted the effectiveness of various breathwork techniques in improving both physiological and psychological outcomes in anxiety disorders. 

The Study:

Researchers identified 1081 articles that included anxiety disorders and breathwork interventions. Of the 1081 articles identified, however,  only 16 met the study criteria which focused on the exclusive use of breathwork without other therapies on adults diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

Research-Based Breathing Techniques for Anxiety Disorders:

To help make sense of the findings in this study, here’s a quick overview of the different breathwork approaches.

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing typically involves deep breathing focused on diaphragmatic activity while maintaining relaxation.
  • Slow Breathing Techniques focus on consciously slowing down the breath to calm the nervous system.
  • Respiratory (or Capnometry) Biofeedback uses real-time data to train individuals to change their breathing patterns.
  • Heart Rate Variability-Biofeedback (HRV-BF) focuses on synchronizing breath with heart rate to maximize heart rate variability and promote relaxation.
  • Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) is a more complex rhythmic breathing technique practiced in sequences, involving various breath rates and intensities.
  • Breathing Retraining Cognitive Restructuring (BRCR) combines slow diaphragmatic breathing with voluntary hyperventilation and muscle relaxation training.
  • Hypercapnic and Hypocapnic Breathing uses defined instructions and timing mechanisms causing clients to breathe deeply or shallowly in order to manipulate CO2 levels.
  • Holotropic Breathwork typically combines faster and deeper breathing to induce intense altered states of consciousness.

Key Findings:

The review concluded that various breathwork interventions can have a significant positive impact on adults with anxiety disorders. Several breathwork interventions showed a marked reduction in anxiety symptoms making breathing techniques a potentially important standalone therapeutic practice. 

In terms of effectiveness, significant reductions in anxiety were noted in studies focusing on slow, deep, or controlled breathing regimens. Biofeedback-assisted respiratory training also demonstrated powerful effects in decreasing panic disorder severity and related measurements.

While many of the breathing techniques studied showed consistent results, opposing findings were seen when looking at breathwork focused on utilizing hyperventilation. This is not a huge surprise as one theory states that hyperventilation can help create panic and anxiety disorders, while a different one considers hyperventilation an adaptive response to anxiety. Despite these contrasting views, both theories endorse breathwork for panic disorder treatment, but use different approaches based on the underlying assumptions.

Most importantly, a key finding was that each study tailored the breathing interventions to the specific needs and responses of the participants.

What Does It All Mean?

In the evolving science of utilizing breathwork for anxiety one size does not, and cannot, fit all. Recognizing specific anxiety triggers, physiological responses, and coping mechanisms unique to each client is vital. This allows for the development of customized breathing protocols to create the most profound results.

Breathwork, though often overshadowed by pharmaceutical and psychotherapeutic interventions, is a potent, accessible, and cost-effective approach to managing anxiety disorders. This latest study underscores the need for the integration of breathwork into mainstream therapeutic protocols as the world grapples with the rising tide of mental health disorders. 

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