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Alternate nostril breathing trumps stress by a nose

Bette Browne | 26 Oct 2017 | 0 Comment(s)

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Hillary Clinton used alternate nostril breathing to counter the anguish of a lost election. Bette Browne looks at research on the technique and other coping skills

When Hillary Clinton lost the US presidential election to Donald Trump, she was devastated by the shock result and turned to alternate nostril breathing (ANB) to help her cope, she reveals in her new book What Happened, triggering fresh interest in the medical benefits of the technique.

Clinton’s devastation after the election result was hardly surprising. She had been widely lauded as the best-qualified candidate for the White House, while her opponent was a political neophyte. Many pre-election polls went so far as to predict a landslide win for her. Instead, on election night, Trump triumphed.

“On November 9, it was cold and raining in New York City,” she says of that fateful night nearly a year ago. “Crowds on the sidewalks turned to face my car as we drove past. Some people were crying. Some raised their hands or fists in solidarity. There were little kids held aloft by their parents. This time, seeing them made my heart sink instead of soar.”

She found little consolation in the fact that she had won the popular vote by an impressive three million tally over Trump, painfully aware that he had won the crucial Electoral College by an 80,000 margin, handing him the presidency and crushing her dream of making history as the country’s first female President.

“I felt completely and totally depleted,” she writes in her book. “Losing is hard for everyone, but losing a race you thought you would win is devastating.” She goes on to describe the loss as “one of the lowest points in my life”.

Antidepressants were never for her, she stresses. “They never have been.” Instead she turned to alternate nostril breathing.

She describes it this way: “Breathing deeply from your diaphragm, place your right thumb on your right nostril and your ring and little finger on your left. Shut your eyes and close off your right nostril, breathing slowly and deeply through your left. Now close both sides and hold your breath. Exhale through the right nostril. Then reverse it: Inhale through the right, close it and exhale through the left.

“If you’ve never done alternate nostril breathing, it’s worth a try,” she suggests.

But is it, and if so what can it actually achieve? Quite a lot, apparently, according to some studies.

Blood pressure

The ANB technique can slow a rapid heart rate and lower blood pressure, according to a January 21, 2013, report in Medical Science Monitor. It can create whole-brain fitness and function by balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It can generate a sense of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and lower stress and it can also help to ease headaches, migraines and other stress-related illnesses.

The benefits may also extend to people with more severe anxiety, according to a study of US military veterans, published in October 2014 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. It found that those who did three hours each day of a breathing-based meditation programme for a week experienced a reduction in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, anxiety and respiration rate.

A 2012 study by researchers at the Department of Kinesiology at San Francisco State University on the influence of alternate nostril breathing on heart rate variability concluded that “both ANB and paced breathing (PB) result in enhanced autonomic modulation of the heart without a shift in autonomic balance. Our data suggests that autonomic changes occurring in response to ANB are primarily mediated by breathing rate in individuals without prior experience with yogic breathing”.

But “it wasn’t all breathing”, Clinton says of her coping mechanisms. “I also drank my share of Chardonnay.” Poetry helped too “on raw December days, with my heart still aching”, she says, citing these lines from Maya Angelou: “You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

Stress

Clinton was also well aware she wasn’t the only one hurting. A survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) examining the health and wellbeing of American adults found that in the weeks leading up to the crucial vote, more than half of US adults were feeling stressed.

“Election stress becomes exacerbated by arguments, stories, images and video on social media that can heighten concern and frustration, particularly with thousands of comments that can range from factual to hostile or even inflammatory,” said Dr Lynn Bufka, the APA’s Associate Executive Director for Practice Research and Policy.

Clinton found that focusing on the stress and disappointment of others after the election also helped her to cope with her own desolation. Admitting responsibility for her loss was essential, she stresses. “Every time I hugged another sobbing friend I had to fight back a wave of sadness that threatened to swallow me whole. At every step, I felt that I had let everybody down. Because I had.”

US presidential campaigns, as I know from covering a number of them, are always gruelling for the candidate, challenging their health and stamina. Pizzas and burgers on the run don’t help much either. Neither is there much time for check-ups if a candidate feels under the weather.

Clinton herself had a nasty scare in the late stages of her campaign when she collapsed briefly after a New York event and had to be treated for pneumonia.

Clinton, of course, is not alone is losing a race for the White House. It hits everyone hard and they all find different ways of coping and rebuilding their mental and physical health.

When Democrat Al Gore lost to Republican George W Bush in the disputed 2000 election, he went to Europe, where he rested, grew a beard and wrote a book.

‘Funk’

When Republican Mitt Romney lost to Democrat Barack Obama in 2012, he said he and his wife were in a “funk” for a few months. “We didn’t want to watch the news,” Romney wrote after the election. “We held back from social engagements. Sometimes emotions don’t make a lot of sense, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real.”

The toughest part of coping is probably getting to the acceptance of the loss. Clinton’s concession speech was praised as “classy” and “poignant”. But that did not make the rejection any easier for her to deal with.

“This loss hurts,” she said in her concession speech. “But please, never stop believing, that fighting for what’s right is worth it.” But for her, there were deeper layers of loss. She had failed to break through the proverbial “glass ceiling” again, just like in 2008 when she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.

Clinton found that focusing on the stress and disappointment of others after the election also helped her to cope with her own desolation

“This was not going to be easy for me,” she wrote in her 2015 memoir Hard Choices. But she did two important things that helped her to cope with her loss. She decided to work to unite her party behind Obama and then, once he became President, she looked to the future by becoming his Secretary of State.

“In a lot of ways, these losses are a little ‘death’ for people,” said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at the time. “They put their entire reputation on the line for one single night and all that work may end up with a loss that will be seen in not only this country, but around the world.”

Mental acuity

Yet, one has to have the mental acuity to keep such crushing losses and disappointments in perspective. Whatever about her embrace of ANB as a coping tool, Clinton’s greatest strength throughout her political career has probably been her grit and resilience, which are invaluable tools in helping to maintain healthy mental and physical balance in life.

“A loss can be a devastating, frustrating, and even scary experience. We all experience loss in our lives, but few of us have ever experienced the kind of loss that happened on election day,” notes a paper by the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

“Many people are in distress. Coping with a loss like this will not be easy for many people. Loss can challenge your sense of security and confidence in the predictability of life. Healthy coping skills are important in resolving a loss. They cannot take away your feelings of loss. They can, however, help you move forward in the healing process.”

And so it was with Hillary Clinton. Indeed, she is already moving forward. She has now formed a group ‘Onward Together’ that is aiming to help elect more Democrats to the US Congress in elections next year.

Defiantly declaring her intention to remain in the political spotlight, she writes: “There were plenty of people hoping that I would just disappear. But here I am.” 

But she keeps what is perhaps her soundest piece of advice for the final chapter of her book. The best coping technique in life as in politics, she concludes, is “to keep going”.

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