With anxiety recently surpassing depression as the top mental health condition, a lot of people are looking for ways to calm their brains and bodies – and fast.
Sure, there are medications that can do this rather well. In fact, the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines is very successful at providing immediate relief. They are also highly addictive and have serious withdrawals.
One sure way to calm your brain and body instantly without medication is with your breath.
How Your Breath Controls Your Nervous System
Although it’s been well-known for a long time that slow breathing can have a calming effect on emotions and rapid breathing makes you anxious, science didn’t know exactly why. Earlier this past year, researchers just figured out how breathing directly calms your brain through what’s being called the “breathing pacemaker.”
The breathing pacemaker is a group of neurons at the base of the brain stem and was first discovered in mice back in 1991. It has since been identified and studied in humans. It wasn’t until recently though that its link to emotions, breathing rate, and arousal was understood.
In a mouse study, the group of neurons at the base of the rodents’ brain stems was found to directly connect to the arousal center in the brain. When the scientists “silenced” certain neurons in the mice’s breathing pacemakers giving them “at-rest’ breathing patterns, they remained chill even when put in situations that would normally stress them out.
Turns out, these neurons have a direct line to the brain’s arousal center and can either tell the brain there’s an emergency and set off the body’s alarms, or keep it on an even keel, maintaining a sense of calm. When you intentionally slow your breathing down, these neurons don’t send the panic signal.
The newly discovered neural pathways could be potential targets for better drugs to help alleviate stress and anxiety in the future.
How To Calm Your Breath
Breathing is an unusual bodily function in that it’s both involuntary and voluntary. Other vital systems, like digestion or circulation, happen without any conscious influence from you. As a matter of fact, you couldn’t control them if you tried. They are managed solely by your unconscious mind.
Breathing is also managed in the unconscious – most of the time – but at any moment, you can take control and change how you breathe which simultaneously alters your emotions and nervous system. Therefore, controlled deep breathing is a sure and quick way to combat stress and anxiety on-the-spot.
Controlled breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, pranayama breathing, or relaxing breathing, has long been a fundamental part of Eastern practices, like yoga and meditation. It’s one of the foundations of mindfulness. Whatever you call it, the effective dynamics at work in deep breathing are as described above, and the fact that more oxygen enters your body while more carbon dioxide exits. Taking long, deep breaths slow your heart rate and activates your calming parasympathetic nervous system.
The basic mechanics of controlled breathing can vary slightly with each philosophy and get very involved or stay fairly simple. Most teachings include three basic parts:
- With a closed mouth, inhale deeply through your nose for a count (usually three to six), making sure your abdomen expands.
- At the top of the inhalation, hold your breath for a certain number of counts (usually two to four).
- Exhale completely through your mouth or nose for a count longer than the inhalation.
Once you get the hang of it, you can practice slow breathing anytime and anywhere as needed. Here are six slow breathing techniques you can try.
Five Benefits of Calming Your Breath According to Science
Slowing down your breath has many benefits, proven by science, for your brain and body. It’s one of the simplest ways to improve your health, both physically and mentally – and it’s free and not addictive. Here are five specific benefits:
1. Reduced Stress
Your brain is always on alert scanning its environment for potential threats. In the harsh world of our ancestors, this was an advantage that helped our species survive. However, with the constant, low-grade stressors of our pedal-to-the-metal society today, this almost constant stress response creates unhealthy conditions for your brain and body with serious lasting consequences.
Controlled breathing decreases your body’s stress response and is a potent tool you have to prevent the brain damage which can occur as the result of chronic stress.
2. Reduced Anxiety
As well as keeping the “breathing pacemaker” calm, slowing your breath activates your parasympathetic nervous system which is linked to stimulation of the vagus nerve—a nerve running from the base of your brain to your abdomen. There is scientific evidence to support the idea that anxiety, depression, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease might be mediated by the vagus nerve.
Research has determined that the vagus nerve is part of a feedback loop between positive emotions, physical health, and positive social connections. Stimulating the vagus nerve has been shown to have a wide array of health advantages from helping depression, anxiety, headaches, and digestion to inflammation, chronic fatigue, arthritis, and more.
3. Lower Blood Pressure and Heart Rate
Research shows that when practiced regularly, controlled breathing causes your blood vessels to relax and widen which lowers blood pressure and heart rate. This improves health in many areas, including reduced risk of stroke and heart disease and may even help you live longer.
4. Increased Brain Growth
When deep breathing is incorporated into a regular meditation practice, your brain actually increases in size. People who routinely practice mindfulness meditation develop thicker layers of neurons in their insula — a region of the brain that activates upon tuning into your body and feelings — and in parts of the prefrontal cortex controlling attention. Meditation has also been found to increase gray matter density in a number of different brain regions, including the hippocampus, essential to memory.
By decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, which have been shown to limit neurogenesis, deep breathing may also facilitate the birth of new brain cells.
5. Altered Gene Expression
Research has found that controlled breathing because it activates the relaxation response can even change the expression of your genes, specifically those involved in immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion.
One study found more profound changes in long-term practitioners but detected measurable differences in gene expression after just 15 minutes. Another study determined that long-term practice of inducing the relaxation response, as done in slow breathing, resulted in changes to the expression of genes associated with how the body reacts to stress.Share this article!
Back in 2001 when I did my first yoga pose, standing up while taking in a deep breath and raising my arms over my head then releasing the breath as I lowered my arms, I was transformed by the power that simple act had on my body and mind. After that, I was hooked. Over time I learned the power of that deep breathing exercises, yoga and meditation can have to lower my stress level, realign my body and bring a sense of peace regardless of what’s going on around me. It’s great to now know the science behind it!
Nothing like first-hand experience to prove what works! It is nice to see it scientifically validated, though! I always use my breathing and bringing my mind into the present to calm my anxiety. Works every time!
It’s so interesting you should be writing about this Debbie. A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine who has a nine year old, discovered that he was experiencing anxiety. Thankfully, he was able to speak about it and she discovered it was common for some at this age to have their first taste of real anxiety, often not understanding the feeling or what it’s really about, just that it hurts their stomach! After some research she not only helped her son understand that it wasn’t unusual…that it’s a normal part of life, experienced by just about every human being on the planet, and taught him how to use breathing to calm his mind and body.
It worked a treat.
Hey Debbie, great article as always! I was wondering… do you have an app you recommend for learning different breathing techniques?
I’m sorry, Nils. I don’t use an app. Ass an avid yoga practitioner for over a decade, I have learned how to breathe in yoga and don’t feel the need for one.
This is a really sound article, except for the fact that no psychiatrist prescribes opioids to combat anxiety. The most commonly prescribed drugs for anxiety are benzodiazepines, which while addictive are not the same as an opioid painkiller.
Thank you for pointing that out. I have made the correction. For the record, I have a history of getting the two mixed up! 🙂
Debbie, great article. I’ve just completed a 2 day Systema breathing workshop. We spent the weekend working on a variety of breathing techniques, including breath hold work, russian ladder breathing, recovery breathing, triangular breathing, burst breaths, breathing whilst under stress and tension and just good quality mindful breathing. Incredible journey over 2 days and, yes, the only unconscious bodily function that we can control. Must be good reason and logic for that.
Wow! That sounds awesome, Dan. I would love to do that. Then you know the power of your breathing firsthand. 🙂
Debbie, good writeup Altering breathing patterns actually makes one be in the “PRESENT” …… The struggles with forced meditation end . Hence, a necessar and simple meditative practice that can be done all day .
I often just use counting my breaths as a brief meditative break during the day. It’s always my go-to when my mind is too busy during a meditation session. 🙂
Breathwork has helped feel more calm and peaceful. I use it during yoga and when going to sleep. It helps to be aware of your breath and what it can do so that you feel more peaceful. Thanks, Debbie. Good information here.
Debbie this is such an easy and doable way to calm anxiety. In fact one of the first techniques I teach my clients is breathing to calm their emotions. Its such a miracle cure.
That’s a great breathing exercise you’ve described 😀
I’m glad you think so, Rachel. I like it too.:)
I really love your work. You have a way of making things so easy to understand! I hope you can keep this going for many years to come. I run a social skills group, and have been able to implement some of these thoughts in my work. Thank you.
Thank you for your kind words and support, Janice. I’m glad you find the info so useful. I would love to keep it up for years – if only I could make a living at it. Hopefully – one day! 🙂
A hand tool for my stress relief kit. Thanks, Debbie!