Dr Patricia Gerbarg and her husband, Richard Brown, are each professors in psychiatry, she an assistant clinical professor at New York Medical College and he an associate clinical professor at Columbia University. Between them they have impressive credentials and experience integrating mind-body practices into their treatment programs where they have worked extensively with children and adults who have undergone some form of trauma. Patricia was interviewed by Catherine Spann in this week’s Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga online session.
Earlier in the course Patricia took us through the practice of Coherent Breathing, which involves taking 5 breaths per minute. I had difficulty with this practice because the quality of the recording and the sound of the tone both were irritating to listen to, resulting in a continually interrupted practice. About a year ago the New York Times published Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing, which explains Coherent Breathing along with other breath practices. In the video below Patricia and Richard demonstrate Coherent Breathing.
During the interview Patricia explained that this type of breathing is one of numerous breath practices all referred to scientifically as VRBP (Voluntarily Regulated Breathing Practices). Her client approach utilizes “integrated treatment”, which consists of “standard treatments combined with herbs, nutrients, and mind-body practices.” I found it heartening to hear that she tries to prescribe few, if any, anti-anxiety medications because they can be addictive and studies are showing that increased reliance on such drugs over a twenty year period can lead to dementia.
I was all ears when she began speaking about caregiver’s stress and stress of people who generally maintain their calm when in the face of adversity – people who can manage a high degree of stress. She noted that even people who describe themselves in that manner are still susceptible to “accumulating internal stress without realizing and noticing until something happens.” Essentially, caregivers, doctors, people in similar professions cannot go through life unscathed by the intensity of circumstances they come in contact with. Therefore, as Catherine commented, VRBPs such as Coherent Breathing provide both a preventative technique as well as a coping technique.
The other portion of the interview that caught my attention had to do with the vagus nerve. Patricia described the vagus nerve as the true mind-body connection as it carries messages from the mind to the body, and from the body to the mind. As she explained, each breath we breathe influences the messages that our respiratory system sends to our brain. Slow, steady controlled breathing sends a powerful positive message to the brain, providing a short-cut to self-regulation.
Typically, during an INhale the message is to speed up the heart rate, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system. This automatically kicks in when we feel stress. During an EXhale the heart rate slows and that, in turn, activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The other piece of this process is HRV (heart rate variability). Whereas heart rate refers to the number of beats per minute, and can be measured by taking a pulse, heart rate variability is the time between each heart beat and requires an EKG machine for measurement. The higher HRV, the more parasympathetic activity there is, which bodes well for long-term health. Curiously, this is a measurement that is rarely provided during an annual physical!
To quote from the quiz at the end of Session 5:
Higher heart rate variability (HRV) is a reflection of greater vagus activity, which is associated with better health and living longer.