Dr. Fred Muench is a clinical psychologist who served on the team that developed the Helicor StressEraser bio-feedback device for breath-based stress reduction, as well as the Breath Pacer application for the iPhone. Dr. Muench offers a unique perspective into the science and application of conscious breathing, with some startling revelations on the profound effects breathing has on depression, anxiety and hypertension.
Perfect Breath: What was it that initially sparked your interest in the breath and its applications to health and wellness?
Fred Muench: I went to school for clinical psychology and during my training I realized that every patient intervention uses a stress management technique even if it is just as an adjunct. Whether it was a chronic population on an in-patient ward, schizophrenics, depressives, anxiety cases, it didn’t matter, there was always some form of stress management that was a part of the treatment.
There was also the mindfulness revolution of the early nineties which occurred while I was in grad school. So we started hearing more and more about it. And I came to realize that in every one of these interventions the common or even primary mechanism was breath control and although there were different techniques and forms – alternate nostril breathing, different counts and ratios – it was ultimately about slow deep breathing.
After I graduated I was working at Columbia doing process research into the mechanisms of change in people. We were looking at social support, stimulus control techniques, and at people changing their environments, and it became clear that stress reduction was a key part of how people changed their behavior. Whether it was engaging in physical activity, stress reduction methods like meditation or breath retraining – stress reduction techniques were an excellent predictor of outcome. So I started focusing on breathwork more and more as time went on.
At that time Helicor was looking for a director of clinical research, focused on psycho-physiology and what happens to the body as people are breathing. That led me full force into this entire world of biofeedback, breath retraining, and stress reduction.
Since leaving Helicor, I’ve been working on applications like the Breath Pacer for the iPhone, as well as other applications and phones as well.
PB: During the research, studies, and investigations that you’ve conducted, what has surprised you the most?
FM: My perception, and I think that of the general public as well, was that breathing techniques help with stress arousal and anxiety and stress-related conditions, which is all true. What shocked me was the powerful effect of breath retraining on the symptoms of depression!
What I found so interesting was that when you have an anxious or hyper-tense population, what you are dealing with is sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system) over-arousal. Breath retraining reduces sympathetic nervous system over arousal and increases para-sympathetic nervous system activity – the relax, recuperate, regenerate system –which calms you down.
With depressives the problem seems to be under arousal. Low skin conductance, low heart-rate variability (HRV), and reduced low-frequency HRV. These are all indicators of depression. The whole body is under-aroused – it can’t get moving. Proper breathing seems to bring balance to the body. It is not a one way intervention, but brings the body into to equilibrium so it can work. Breath retraining increases skin conductance and increases low-frequency HRV. Typically people think these are not great outcomes. But in depressives that is exactly what you want.
Perhaps one of the most important outcomes is increased vagal nerve tone. The vagus nerve is the primary pacifying nerve in the body. Increased vagus nerve tone activates parts of the body that need activating and quells the parts that need to be relaxed. That was what really took me by surprise – the powerful effects on depressives. The effects are so significant they make any drug look like a placebo. The effect sizes are either large or very large and that is compared to active treatment not placebo. Compared to active relaxation treatments that don’t utilize breath retraining as an active component, it is extremely powerful. Unfortunately these outcomes have not been widely publicized which is a shame.
PB: What is the connection between the breath and the vagus nerve? How does the breath impact vagus function?
FM: The breath’s effects on the vagus occur primarily during exhalation. During exhalation your heart rate decelerates and during that period of deceleration the vagus becomes active. Shallow, rapid breathing patterns inhibit the vagus because the period of vagal activity is too short and the nerve does not have time to pacify the other nerves that it touches. It really is a simple mechanism. By slowing down your breathing you create more vagal activity, accentuating its relaxing and regenerating effects. With bio-feedback devices (such as StressEraser) you can train yourself to keep the heart-rate deceleration for as long as possible, maximizing its benefits.
PB: What do you see as the main benefits of using biofeedback technologies like StressEraser, and Breath Pacer?
FM: There is a difference in the function and value between StressEraser and Breath Pacer. The Breath Pacer is a simple metronome, while the StressEraser is actually a biofeedback device. Both of these devices make breath retraining accessible to those who don’t know about it or have difficulty performing the activity.
I’ve been quite surprised at how many people are oblivious to the effects of their breath – who don’t understand the concept of slowing down their breath, or are chest breathers. These technologies provide them with a window into the power of breath.
I personally found that I was easily distracted doing breathwork and discovered that the external focus provided by the device was very helpful, especially on the subway. I’ll just close my eyes and use the audio component to guide my breathing and do 20 minutes of breathwork on the way to the office. It does help you to stay focused, and when your mind wanders, StressEraser has the added benefit showing you the breaks in the waves so you can see what is happening. The down side is that some people are very anxious and get even more stressed out seeing their physiology being tracked on the device. For those people the simple metronome function of the Breath Pacer might be a better place to start.
The ultimate goal however is to encourage people to practice focusing on their breath. Where they take it from there is up to them. The physiological effects of just focusing on breath are so powerful, that alone would be sufficient, but if they graduate into integrating other practices such as mindfulness, yoga, or meditation, that is even better. [...]
To read the entire interview, click here.