Scientists Discover Why Breathing Techniques Reduce Anxiety and Promote Calm
If you’ve ever been anxious and felt stressed – whether as a child, adult, or both – you’ve probably been told by someone else to “take a deep breath” and “calm down.” Indeed, this calming tactic has been used by parents and teachers since the beginning of time. But aside from seemingly great advice, is there any scientific evidence to back up the notion that slower breathing calms us down?
If there wasn’t before, there is now. Using neuroscience, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have revealed in a new study that there is indeed a powerful link in the brain between breathing and mental states.
For the most part, breathing is something that we do on autopilot. Breathing is controlled by the medulla in the brain stem, and if we cease to breathe for very long, we will die.
Still, we can exert control over our breathing – we hold our breath, slow it down during meditation, and increase it when we need to.
Senior author Mark Krasnow, professor of biochemistry at Stanford:
“The power of breathing has assumed almost legendary status in the world of complementary medicine.”
Although using controlled breathing to manage anxiety and induce calm may seem like common sense until now there were no studies conducted to determine why this is so.
Twenty-five years ago, neurobiologist Jack Feldman discovered an area referred to as a “breathing pacemaker” in the brains of mice. Since Feldman, who collaborated on the new study made this discovery, the breathing pacemaker has also been found in humans.
The area in the medulla contains 3,000 neurons, and researchers have been attempting to identify them and their corresponding roles. One graduate student, Kevin Yackle, examined the neurons and found that they could be placed into 65 subtypes.
In a previous study, it was revealed that one of those subtypes, which contained around 200 neurons, were responsible for making mice “sigh.” Moreover, activation of these neurons resulting in sighing, and inactivation eliminating sighing. A sigh is considered to be a double-sized breath, by the way.
For the new study, another set of neurons was examined and inactivated. Researchers posited that they would witness the same effect as with the sighing study. However, they did not.
“It was actually very disappointing initially because the breathing patterns did not change.”
But researchers kept watching the mice, and noticed that although their breathing remained unchanged, their behavior had not:
“The mice had become chill. They were laid back.”
That is, when mice are placed in a new environment, they tend to explore their surroundings and sniff about. However, mice who had deactivated neurons just hung out and groomed themselves. This is typical behavior of mice who are relaxed and calm.
Eventually, researchers determined that the neurons inactivated in the second study extended from the breathing pacemaker to the arousal center of the brain (the locus coeruleus) which, in turn, communicates orders to the rest of the brain, telling it to wake up or relax, depending on circumstances.
“We now know that the breathing center directly controls the activity of higher order brain functions. There’s a feedback circuit. Now we can understand better how this control of the breathing center changes the rest of the brain.”
This research could have implications for the treatment of potentially fatal breathing problems such as sleep apnea and SIDS. But for the rest of us, we now know, thanks to scientific evidence, that we can indeed control our state of mind by the rate and manner in which we breathe.
Simple Meditation Breathing
If you are stressed out, try this simple exercise to relieve anxiety – breathe out slowly. That’s it. Focus on your breath as you exhale, and ignore your breath as you inhale. You will naturally begin to inhale longer as you exhale, therefore you don’t need to focus on how long you inhale.
Your exhales should be slow, steady, and gentle. You may imagine you are blowing up a balloon slowly with minimal force. Exhale until the last of your breath is released. During slow breathing, try to identify tense areas in your body, such as your lips, jaw, and shoulder. With each exhale, allow tension to release and relaxation to flow in.
Deep Vs. Slow Breathing
Both deep breathing and slow breathing techniques can be used to reduce anxiety, but many find it easier to concentrate on slow breathing. Also, some people may get anxiety from deep breathing itself, and the simplicity of slow breathing techniques ensure you won’t forget instructions during an anxiety or panic attack.
Boyes, Alice, Ph.D. Breathing techniques for anxiety. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201607/breathing-techniques-anxiety
Yackle, Kevin, et al. “Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice.” Science 355.6332 (2017): 1411-1415.