Science Confirms Why Breathing to Calm Yourself Works
By Zach Meyer
Psychologists have known for decades (and chill people, for much longer) that breathing deliberately and slowly induces a sense of calm and peace. Pretty much every time. It's so reliable that we teach it to clients who struggle with all kinds of anxiety, and they report that it changes their lives. When they ask us why it's so effective, we've usually explained it thusly: When aroused by anxious thoughts, the brain checks in with the body to see if it's feeling aroused too. If it is, then the brain sounds the alarm to get full-on panicky about those anxious thoughts. If, however, the brain encounters a relaxed body, it seems it wants to be "in agreement" with it, and will usually begin to calm itself to match the state of the body.
Sounds cool, but lacks the "oompf" of hard science. Thing is, that's just the best explanation we've had. No one really knew why relaxation breathing worked so well.
Until earlier this year.
Scientists at Stanford have identified a tiny cluster of cells in the brain stem that play an important role in regulating breathing, and have observed that they have a unique relationship with the part of our brain that controls arousal.
Breathing is a complicated thing. We don't just breath fast or slow. There's shallow and deep, steady and gasping, and sometimes our breathing is interfered with because we're speaking, crying, or even choking. The scientists at Stanford have zeroed in on a tiny cluster of cells responsible for helping you regulate all kinds of breathing without having to think too much about it.
But they also noticed a neural "relationship" between this area of the brain and an area called the locus coeruleus. The locus coeruleus is pretty important. It "sends projections to practically every part of the brain and drives arousal: waking us from sleep, maintaining our alertness and, if excessive, triggering anxiety and distress." What these scientists discovered is that the locus coeruleus actively monitors the previously described area for signs of distress in the form of difficulty breathing. If something seems off, it sends out the danger signal and arouses the rest of the brain. If you happen to have fallen asleep face down and are suffocating, this is a vital function. If you are a person who struggles with anxiety and it makes you take short, shallow breaths, this biological function is going to amplify your anxiety every time because your brain is interpreting your breathing as a sign of distress.
So, while the explanation we've been giving for why relaxation breathing works was a little off, these new findings not only affirm the technique but finally help us understand why it works so well. The tiny part of your brain with the power to rouse the whole thing in times of danger prefers to check in with how you're breathing before it sounds the alarm. By breathing in a deliberately calm way, you can literally prevent your brain's anxiety response.
That's pretty cool!
So, if you've never tried relaxation breathing, now's your chance. Its biological mechanism has been confirmed, and it's a great, natural way to quiet your mind and relax your whole body. It'll only take a couple minutes.
To begin, sit in a comfortable position. Your goal is to focus on your breathing, so some people like to close their eyes if it helps them focus better. Breathe in through your nose slowly, comfortably filling your lungs for a count of about five. Pause here for a count of two or three, and then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of five. Pause for a count of two or three, and inhale again, beginning another cycle.
Do this for two to five minutes, always focusing on breathing in this way, and you'll notice some pretty obvious changes in your body and even in your mind.
One of our favorite things about this coping skill is that not only is it really effective at curbing anxiety, but you can do it virtually anywhere and no one has to know! It's a secret weapon you can almost always use against your anxiety.
Give it a try, and help keep your locus coeruleus in check!
(Original study written about here: http://neurosciencenews.com/tranquility-slow-breathing-6317/)