Just breathe. Yes, it's something we've all heard countless times as a call to slow down, decompress, gain perspective and recollect in the face of stress. However, there's a real concern that the simplicity of the message hides the fact that conscious breathing is a highly physiological, science-backed method for regulating our stress response. When we use controlled breathing exercises to manage stress, we're focusing on shifting our consciousness from an anxious state to a calm, meditative one. For centuries, this was the stuff of gurus and yogis. Today, it is the work of scientists. Take a look at the complicatedly simple connection between breathing and anxiety relief.
Your Brain on Breathing: How Our Breaths Influence Our States
In 2017, Stanford scientists unveiled a paper identifying a handful of nerve cells within the brainstem that link breathing with states of mind. Considered a natural "pacemaker" for breathing, this neuron cluster buried deep inside the brainstem has the incredible function of linking our respiration to attention, relaxation, excitement and anxiety. In experiments involving mice, researchers were able to determine that mice placed in stressful environments stopped displaying vivid, telltale "stress responses" when specific neurons that control "sighing" were altered. Unable to participate in this type of breathing, the mice became what the researchers noted as being extremely "calm" and "mellow." The finding was a big moment for connecting breathing patterns and state of being for the scientific community.
Your Emotions on Breathing: Breathing and the Emotional Center
"Respiratory symptoms are the best predictor of panic attacks, as defined in the DSM IV," say researchers. It is widely known by neuroscientists that our emotional state impacts our breathing. Our emotions actually generate brain and body signatures within the peripheral nervous system that also express outwardly. This often looks like changes in heart rate, elevated blood pressure and rapid breathing. All of these changes are largely unconscious. This is why conscious breathing can be such an effective healing technique for steering the body's response in the direction we choose.
When doing emotional healing, diaphragmatic breathing blends the contraction of the diaphragm with deepened inhalation and exhalation to decrease our respiration. We have a number of studies to look at that show breathing practice to be an effective and fast-acting non-pharmacological option for emotional regulation. Citing the connection between the vagus nerve and psychological responses that are tied to emotional trauma, researchers are continually making connections between controlled breathing and the sensory experiences generated by the autonomic nervous system. In particular, breath control is proving to be effective for reducing anxiety, depression and stress.
Breathing may even be a gateway to overcoming job burnout without making any rash decisions. In 2011, researchers found that a one-day breathing retreat was able to significantly relieve symptoms of emotional exhaustion caused by job-related burnout. People who invest the time in learning breathing exercises they can do on their own essentially have unlimited access to a 24-hour, on-demand breathing "retreat."
While breathing impacts the way our brains and bodies function on the neural and physiological levels, there is also value in the way body awareness harnessed from breath work helps us to become grounded in the face of stressful situations. One of the scariest aspects of being under stress is the feeling that we are "losing control." When we have breathing exercises in our toolkit, we are able to take control of the situation using techniques that have been practiced thoroughly. What's more, we learn to recognize the pre-feelings of stress before they overwhelm us.
The body awareness that is fostered by becoming a "breather" allows us to recognize the physical feelings that accompany stress. The slightest changes in heart rate, temperature or breathing serve as small alarms that it's time to regroup. Armed with a catalog of breathing exercises that can help us to regulate our emotional response, we're able to steer the ship away from the extreme stress response that might reach a crescendo if left unattended.
Conscious Breathing: An Easy, Satisfying Way to Explore Breathing and Anxiety Relief
There are many breathing techniques tailored for emotional healing, clearer thinking and better physical health. One of the most effective techniques for people looking for relief from an anxiety attack without necessarily relying on anxiety medication is Ocean Breathing. Using the Ocean Breathing technique, we tighten the passageway in the throat in a way that produces a sound similar to ocean waves as air passes through. While simple, this is an effective method of using muscles in the throat for breathing resistance training. As our air passages narrow, our diaphragm works harder and harder to pull air through. This is a textbook example of the diaphragmatic breathing that is so commonly cited in medical journals as being effective at regulating emotions and soothing anxiety. One of the benefits of regularly practicing Ocean Breathing is that it builds up strength in our diaphragm to help us to take controlled, intentional breaths in response to stress.
Another very helpful breathing technique for anxiety is called Resonance Frequency Breathing (RFB). This breathing practice has been found to improve mood as well as reduce blood pressure with just 15 minutes of practice.
Breathing Our Way to a Calmer, More Aware State
The connection between breathing and anxiety relief is impossible to ignore. By regulating our breaths, we are able to regulate our body's emotional response to stress triggers. The secret to taking advantage of this "natural" tool for emotional regulation and wellness is to master techniques while we're feeling calm. A combination of intention and muscle memory enables us to then use anxiety-resistant breathing techniques to stop an emotional "storm surge" once we recognize that our bodies are about to shift into an anxious state.