Why is there still so much judgment around mental illness? No one seems to judge you for physical health issues such as catching a cold or getting diagnosed with cancer, yet if you live with bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia there’s an unspoken layer of silence that seems to hover around these and other mental health conditions.
Thankfully, there is a growing movement to bring mental illness into the light where it can be discussed without blame or shame. This is vital because it is often stigma and embarrassment that keep people from getting the help they need. The more we remove the stigma around mental illness, the more people will feel comfortable getting treatment and support.
About one out of every four adults has a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Many of the following mental health issues appear to be on the rise, especially among millennials:
When it comes to anxiety treatment, and mental illness in general, conventional Western medicine is more likely to prescribe medication to manage symptoms rather than seeking out and addressing the root causes. Pharmaceutical interventions have helped many people with mental illness, but not everyone sees the same results. There’s also the risk of a lifetime of pharmaceutical dependence and the unwanted side effects that often come with it. This is why breath and sleep are so important to consider if you are looking to resolve your mental health issues.
The roles of breath and sleep in mental health are too often ignored in mainstream mental health treatment. Thankfully, this is starting to change.
James Nestor's groundbreaking book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art explores how we can harness knowledge from ancient breathing techniques to radically improve our physical and mental health. Science is proving what ancient cultures have told us for millennia — the quality of your breath directly affects the quality of your life.
Most people know that disordered breathing can be a symptom of mental health issues such as anxiety or schizophrenia. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know that it often entails quick and shallow breathing and is often accompanied by a feeling of “not being able to catch your breath.”
It is clear that too much shallow, quick breathing affects your psychological state. Few people realize that poor breathing patterns can actually contribute to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia over time.
Clearly, stress affects emotion, mood, and physical health. Chronic stress has been linked to anxiety and depression, as well as irritability and difficulty concentrating. Researchers are investigating how long-term stress can change the biochemical and physical structures of the brain. Breath is at the center of all of this.
We live in a modern world of technological distractions and processed foods. Anthropologists have amassed evidence that, despite their shorter lifespans, our ancestors didn’t experience the rates of chronic disease and work-related stress that we do today. Modern humans in industrialized nations spend much more time stressed and working than our ancient ancestors. This has a profound effect on our mental well-being.
As more and more people spend their days at desks in front of screens, a troubling new issue known as email apnea is gaining attention. Unlike sleep apnea, which is when your breathing is temporarily obstructed during sleep, email apnea is what happens you spend your day in a perpetual state of distraction. As you flit from email to email and task to task, you unconsciously hold your breath. Just like sleep apnea, email apnea is detrimental to your mental and physical health. Whether it happens in the day or at night, apnea is linked to serious problems such as heart disease and memory loss.
A healthy human lives primarily in the parasympathetic state known as “rest and digest,” and occasionally moves into the sympathetic state known as “fight or flight” when faced with a serious threat or danger.
Parasympathetic “rest & digest”
Sympathetic “fight or flight”
|Slower, more regular breathing.||Shorter, quicker, shallower breathing.|
|Relaxation and calm.||Alert awareness, arousal and stress.|
If you spend too much of your time in a state of stress (as most modern humans do), it means that your sympathetic “fight or flight” state becomes your daily norm. This limits your ability to go back into the restorative parasympathetic state necessary for essential functions such as digestion and healing. Too much “fight or flight” decreases the quality of your sleep and can lead to serious mental health issues.
Chronic stress has been linked to anxiety, eating disorders, diabetes, and heart problems. Too much time in the sympathetic state can also negatively affect your immune system, putting you at risk of increased infection. This means that if your daily life is full of stress, you are at a higher risk of disease. You’re more likely to get sick more often, and when you do get sick it can take you longer to recover.
The good news is that there is a lot you can do to increase your time in “rest and digest” mode. You can start by becoming conscious of your breath. In moments of stress, it is especially beneficial to focus on a long exhale. Healthier, slower breathing patterns can bring you back to the parasympathetic state. Incorporating exercise, taking time for self-care, and giving yourself healthy opportunities to unwind with hobbies like gardening, music, or yoga also reduce stress.
In addition to helping reduce stress, slow, conscious breathing before eating has been shown to improve digestion. Chewing and breathing slowly and mindfully allows you to better process nutrients such as minerals and vitamins, supporting your immune system and your overall health.
In the past, sleep disorders such as insomnia were viewed as a symptom or a consequence of mental illness. Today, the connection between sleep and mental health is considered to be bidirectional. In other words, sleep affects mental health and mental health affects sleep. The relationship between the two is more complex than previously thought.
Sleep influences mood, memory, learning, and emotional resilience. Although there is still much to be learned about what happens during sleep, we all know that a good night's rest gives us more energy, well-being, and mental alertness. Conversely, not getting enough sleep, having poor quality sleep, or waking up frequently will often lead to low energy, a negative mood, and difficulty concentrating, staying awake, or learning. Over time, getting too much or too little sleep can be a risk factor for mental illness and even suicidal ideas or behaviors.
Poor sleep can contribute to mental health issues. Mental health issues make it harder to sleep. Sleep disorders like insomnia can be a cause, a symptom, and a consequence of mental health disorders.
The safest and most efficient way to accomplish this vital task is called nasal breathing. This is when you inhale and exhale almost exclusively through your nose with your lips closed and your tongue pressed against the palate (the roof of your mouth).
The quantity and quality of air you are able to take in has a lot to do with the physical state of your airway. In a healthy airway, the muscles of the tongue, throat and nose are toned and “in shape”. If all is well, they keep the airway open and functional 24 hours a day. This allows the breath to flow in and out unobstructed through the nose. The cells and organs of the body are able to function or grow. In sleep, the muscles of the airway relax and the airway remains open so that the body can rest and recover during sleep.
There are many things that can obstruct your airway, blocking the amount of air getting into your body. An obstructed airway can be caused by many issues such as a physical blockage or inflammation. Here are some of the most common:
These are only a few of many factors that contribute to airway obstructions. The bottom line is that there are many, often overlapping factors that contribute to airway obstruction and disordered breathing patterns.
There are many types of breathing problems. They are so tightly interwoven with our body’s systems that it can be hard to draw the line between a symptom and a cause.
For example, asthma is a condition in which the airway becomes swollen, narrow and tight. Asthma often arises from allergies, causing chest constriction, coughing, and labored breathing. This difficult breathing can increase mouth breathing, which further irritates and exposes the airway to allergens and contaminants. It all intertwines in a vicious cycle that often worsens over the years if it is not addressed.
People who live with mental problems are likely to also have insomnia, restless sleep, interrupted sleep and other sleep disorders. Until fairly recently, these sleep issues were seen as a symptom of psychiatric disorders.
Today, more and more health professionals and researchers are paying attention to airway and sleep and their contribution to psychiatric disorders. Sleep disorders can be a result of mental illness. At the same time, disordered sleep may increase the risk for developing mental illness.
Breathing problems have been linked to a laundry list of physical ailments from dental cavities to hypertension, but they are just as detrimental to sleep and mental health. Disordered breathing in and of itself is tied to your emotional state and mental health because:
Healthy sleep patterns and restful sleep contribute to emotional and mental well-being and resilience because:
Common sleep issues include:
In order to get a good night’s rest, you need to be able to breathe consistently, adequately and continuously.
As common as it is, snoring is a sign of an airway obstruction. Although it is most common in adults, even babies and children with airway obstructions snore. For infants, this is often due to conditions present at birth, such as tongue tie or another oral restriction. Far from being cute, chronic snoring in babies and children (beyond congestion from a common cold) is a serious red flag that requires attention from a trusted healthcare professional.
Scientific evidence continues to support and explore the uncanny connections between breath, sleep and mental health. At the same time, everyday people are discovering ancient breathing practices, modern-day “hacks,” and lung-expanding exercises improve their mental health. Breath and restorative breathing practices are a critical missing piece in the treatment and prevention of sleep disorders and mental health issues.
No longer reserved for yoguis and mystics, breath is moving towards the mainstream. Airway health is poised to take its rightful place in medicine. This will only continue as more people like you advocate for an integrative approach to breath, sleep and mental wellness.
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