In a recent episode of the critically acclaimed non-fiction TV series “Nightwatch,” a Tampa Fire Rescue paramedic was dealing with child in the midst of an escalating asthma attack. The rescuer cleared a panicked family member for the ambulance and instructed the boy to breathe through his nose and “smell the roses,” then exhale through his mouth and “blow out the candle.” He repeats the instructions over again in a firm but soothing tone – “Smell the roses, blow out the candle.” The boy begins to relax, his breathing begins to normalize; crisis averted.
Since at least the Middle Ages, people have known that taking long, slow, deep breaths can have a calming effect and reduce stress. At the same time, they recognized that what we know as panic attacks can cause a person to take short, fast breaths, which further increase the severity of the attack. To date, there is a good deal of peer-reviewed research to confirm the slow, deep, controlled breathing, such as done in yoga and meditation, can help alleviate anxiety and the onset of depression.
I bring this up because of a story that appeared last week in the journal Science. It states that researchers have at last discovered the neural pathway in the brain that controls this emotion/breathing connection. Until now, science had not been able to pinpoint the neural pathway that connects breathing to the emotional states of anxiety and calmness. It is believed this discovery will eventually lead to therapies to help people who have anxiety, stress and panic attacks. Researchers are already envisioning the development of medication to help lower activity in the pathway, thereby lowering feelings of panic and the rate of breath.
In the meantime, we should feel some reassurance that we can effect positive changes in our emotional state and behavior the natural way, through controlled thoughtful breathing, without pharmaceuticals. It’s also important to point out that this approach may not work for everyone. If someone suffers from panic disorders, it may be nearly impossible to control breathing. A pharmacological approach could be critical for preventing panic attacks triggered by hyperventilation.
And when stress brings on anger, things like counting to 10 and taking a series of deep breaths may not seem to help; especially if you are one of those who get so mad and worked up you want to break something. Can acting on those impulses help relieve the stress and tension a person feels in those moments? Would a controlled environment to get the aggression out of your system do the trick?
We may soon find an answer to this question in “anger rooms,” an enterprise where people can go to blow off steam, now sprouting up around the country. According to a recent CNN news report, for a fee (said to range from $20 to $90), outfitted in protective gear including shoe covers, goggles and a helmet, people can rampage all they want in a controlled environment, without consequence.
Dr. Amit Sood, a medical professor at the Mayo Clinic, for one, is skeptical of how much help a 20-minute session thrashing a room can provide in reducing stress. There are no data. It may work for some and not others. He believes alternatives to reducing stress and anger, such as controlled deep breathing, lowering expectations and the mindful practice of keeping things in perspective, will prove to be more effective in the long run.
And it turns out, there’s lots of research being conducted today that shows, through learning certain skills, people can experience more positive emotions when faced with things such as severe stress or even a life-threatening condition; like learning to dance, for example.
One recent study published this month in Frontiers in Aging, compared the neurological effects of learning to dance as a form of therapy compared with walking and other activities. They discovered that the demands placed on the mind and body from, in this instance learning intricate country-dance choreography, proved to be unusually potent at slowing some of the negative changes inside our brains thought to be inevitable with aging.
Science has long known that processing speed, which is a measure of how rapidly our brains can absorb, assess and respond to new information, is particularly hard hit as we age. After six months, all of the control groups of participants continued to show at least some signs of this kind of “degeneration.” This was especially noticeable in the oldest volunteers and those who had been the most sedentary before joining the study. That is, except for one group. One group showed a measurable improvement in health – the dancers. Researchers believe it’s likely that the cognitive demands of the dancing had a positive impact on brain biochemistry. If nothing else, the data provides another rationale for getting up and moving as well as engaging in what researchers describe as “any activities involving moving and socializing.”
In dealing with the stresses of today, with so much coming at us all of the time, it is definitely a period that calls for some response to bring on relief. In talking to the New York Times, Dr. Steven C. Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno had this prescription: “Use your anxiety to motivate you,” he said. “Think about what you value most and take action.” He believes that taking action can help to instill the sense that you have some control over your environment (what psychologists call perceived self-efficacy) and leave you feeling less stressed and, as a result, breathing easier.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.