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.
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.