Mental Health & Spirituality: It Begins with the Breath

Take a deep breath.  Something that your counselor will probably ask you to do.  You might be wondering, why are they always talking about breathing?  Is it really helpful? The breath is at the core of many spiritual traditions, including Christianity, and it also turns out to be a key component of mental health.  The breath illustrates the beautiful dance that is spirituality and mental health.

Creation and Reconnection

We were created with God’s breath (Genesis 2:7).  After Jesus’ death and resurrection, scripture says that he “breathed” on the disciples so that they can, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:21-22).  Two life giving moments, creation itself and then rebirth into a spiritual life and reconnection with God himself, are illustrated with a breath.  In our hurried modern life that can be laden with trauma and stress, one might argue that we have forgotten to breathe. Returning to our breath, and to God, can help us navigate the depression and anxiety that may inevitably come in our seasons of life.  

Mental and Physical Well-Being

One way to measure a person’s overall mental and emotional health is by their heart rate variability (HRV).  It is “a psychophysiological marker of mental and physical wellbeing” (Kemp). HRV refers to the ability of our heart rates to shift throughout the day.  Our heart rate shifts depending on what we are doing and feeling, and the more easily it can shift, the higher the HRV, the more mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy we are. A study by Kemp and Quintana finds, “HRV has important functional significance for motivation to engage social situations, social approach behaviours, self-regulation and psychological flexibility in the face of stressors.”  Furthermore, reduced HRV is also seen in people with childhood trauma and PTSD (Cohen). Increasing HRV is a goal for treatment when it comes to mental health, and it is an indicator of improvement.

Ways to increase your heart rate variability (HRV):

  1. Deep Breathing Techniques.  Deep breathing is connected with the vagus nerve, which regulates heart rate variability.  Deep breathing is also connected with the fight or flight response in our brain. Simple, deep, slow breathing exercises have been shown by research to improve heart rate variability (Taklikar).
  2. Compassion Based Psychotherapy. Compassion-based interventions have been specifically shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which influences breathing, digestive function and corresponds to heart rate variability (Kirby).  Compassion based interventions such as attachment based psychotherapy create conditions of interpersonal safeness so that the client can face his or her pain and suffering while alleviating feelings of shame through compassion.
  3. Mindfulness Meditation. Studies show that mindfulness meditation, which is simply a meditation practice that focuses on being in the present, decreases stress overall and increases HRV (Prabjhot).

Just as God breathed life into us all, saved us through loving compassion, and draws us into a deep, meditative relationship with the Holy Spirit, our mental and emotional health actually benefits from these three factors.  Mother Teresa famously states:

“The fruit of silence is prayer;

the fruit of prayer is faith;

the fruit of faith is love;

the fruit of love is service,

the fruit of service is peace.”

Questions for Reflection:

How has your mental health benefited from deepening your relationship with God?  How have breathing and meditation helped you to connect with God? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.

References for Further Study

Cohen, Hagit & Kotler, Moshe & A. Matar, Mike & Kaplan, Zeev & Loewenthal, Uri & Miodownik, Hanoch & Cassuto, Yair. (1998). Analysis of heart rate variability in posttraumatic stress disorder patients in response to trauma related reminder. Biological psychiatry. 44. 1054-9. 10.1016/S0006-3223(97)00475-7.

G., S., Taklikar, R., & Takalkar, A. A. (2017). Influence of Deep Breathing Exercise for A Short Duration on Heart Rate Variability in Healthy Young Individuals. International Physiology, 5(1), 23-25. doi:10.21088/ip.2347.1506.5117.5

Kemp, A. H., & Quintana, D. S. (2013). The relationship between mental and physical health: Insights from the study of heart rate variability. International Journal of Psychophysiology,89(3), 288-296. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.06.018

Kirby, J. N., Doty, J. R., Petrocchi, N., & Gilbert, P. (2017). The Current and Future Role of Heart Rate Variability for Assessing and Training Compassion. Frontiers in Public Health, 5. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2017.00040

Puppala, K., Detloff, B., Dicken, J., Somerville, B., Kreitzer, M. J., & Benditt, D. (2013). P03.09. Modulation of Autonomic Nervous System Assessed Through Heart Rate Variability by a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program: Study Protocol. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 2(Suppl). doi:10.7453/gahmj.2013.097cp.p03.09

Van der Zwan, J. E., de Vente, W., Huizink, A. C., Bögels, S. M., & de Bruin, E. I. (2015). Physical Activity, Mindfulness Meditation, or Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback for Stress Reduction: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(4), 257–268.

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