Every breath you take
There is no escape from the fact that our manner of breathing is linked to our state of mind. Many of us have noticed how our emotions can influence how we breathe - but fewer people seem to understand how actively changing the way we breath can help us to manage our emotional state.
Many years ago as a novice participant in Shotokan Karate I was astounded at how quickly I was reduced to a gasping wreck by just 30 seconds of sparring with an opponent. It wasn't so much that I was unfit but a consequence of the extra fear of getting hit.
I let the fear "unconsciously" change my pattern of breathing - it became rapid and shallow - my whole body tensed up causing fatigue of my muscles and of course it became impossible to move quickly. As we progressed through training our sensei constantly reminded us to slow our breathing, breath from our abdomen and to move faster we learned to relax our muscles. Even under intense pressure of sparing we eventually learned to be calm. We noticed that by breathing and relaxing we also were able to react to the pressure with a "calm mind" - being able to think clearly is obviously an asset under pressure. Our sensei used to say "the main difference between excitement and fear is how you breathe"
Science now knows in detail what happens when we are stressed. We might experience stress via our breathing which will tend to become shallow and rapid. It's an inescapable fact of our physiology and our "fight or flight" response.
Martial artists and meditation practitioners have known for millenia that changing our breathing can beneficially change our mental states. Outside of these domains many people are used to breathing in a way that tends to bad for us. A "six pack" abdomen is considered attractive and consequently this posture tends to cause us to hold in our stomach muscles which encourages shallow, chest breathing rather than deep, abdomen focused breathing. A recent Harvard Medical School article explains this in detail.
So where does biofeedback come in?
Biofeedback systems make users aware of important aspects of their physiological state so that they can take action and change that state. A biofeedback system can, for example, use a respiration sensor to measure a persons breathing rate and in a variety of ways feedback that information via visual or auditory means - typically on a computer screen. Systems such as the NeXus units have "plug and play" respiration sensors with breathing pacers that can be used to train a new pattern or breathing very easily. Of course it is possible to combine this with other sensors where necessary.
Paying attention to our breath isn't just beneficial to martial artists it is valuable for everyone. Who wouldn't want to have more control over stress and our emotional states?
It is also becoming clear that the benefits extend to people with severe anxiety following PTSD for example. A small study of US military veterans (Journal of Traumatic Stress) found that three hours per day of a breathing meditation programme for just a week produced a decrease in PTSD symptoms and anxiety.