The primary role of breathing is to absorb oxygen and to expel carbon dioxide through the movement of our lungs. Muscles that control breathing are the diaphragm and the muscles between the ribs, while the breathing function is controlled by the respiratory center of the brain. Pure physiology.
However, we have the power to consciously control our breathing. Why is this important? Because controlling your breath can help you cope with stress and stress-related situations.
Breathing and Stress
You have probably noticed how your breathing differs when you feel relaxed from when you are stressed and anxious.
When we are under stress our breathing pattern changes. Usually, when we feel anxious we take small, shallow breaths, using our shoulders rather than our diaphragm to move air in and out of our lungs.
This breathing pattern, known as hyperventilation, disrupts the balance of the gases in our body and further prolongs the feeling of anxiety. It may trigger a panic attack by making physical symptoms of anxiety worse – we feel dizzy, tired and week and we start sweating. In addition, we may feel nauseous, have skin sensations like prickling and experience legs and arms numbness. Furthermore, we may feel overwhelmed with a fear that we are going to faint, or that something terrible is going to happen.
And all of this is caused by our breathing.
Learning how to control your breathing can help you improve stress and anxiety symptoms and feel more relaxed and composed in stress-related situations.
Breathing and Relaxation
When you breathe deeply, you send the signal to your brain to calm down and relax. In return, your brain sends the same message to your body. The physical responses to stress such as an increased heart rate or quick and shallow breathing decrease as you breathe deeply and begin to relax. This means that breathing is one of the most effective ways to decrease stress in your body.
When you are relaxed, you breathe through your nose. Your breathing is slow and calm. This breathing pattern affects your whole body. Therefore, breathing exercise is a good way to relax, ease tension, and relieve stress. Numerous studies show that controlled relaxed breathing helps calm the nervous system that is in charge of the body’s involuntary functions.
Some of the physical changes caused by deep, relaxed breathing involve reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood, lowered blood pressure, and balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Moreover, deep breathing can increase your overall physical energy, boost your immune system and enhance the feelings of composure and well-being.
The Science behind Deep Breathing
During the 1990s, researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles discovered a bundle of approximately 3,000 interlinked neurons inside the brain stems of animals and people that seem to control most aspects of breathing. They called this bundle of neurons the “breathing pacemaker”. This patch of neurons communicates the information on your breathing to another part of the brain responsible for your state of mind.
Researchers found that if these neurons were destroyed in mice, they had a reduced sense of alertness and became far more relaxed.
Researchers in another study, published in Science decided to check what genes seem to be active in this region of the brain. They homed them in on 175 neurons in the “breathing pacemaker” and then inactivated these neurons in mice. At first nothing significant happened. But then they noticed a change in the rodents – they had become relaxed. Rather than going around and exploring their cage, the mice were just relaxing in there. Moreover, there was a noticeable change of their breathing pattern – it became slow and controlled.
More importantly, the researchers noticed the similarities between the behavior of the lab mice and people who have lost function in the arousal part of their brain that causes alertness and panic.
They came to conclusion that without these neurons, the arousal center doesn’t receive information from the “breathing pacemaker”, thus the brain does not become alert. This means that the breathing in mice stayed slow because the “breathing pacemaker” was not getting panic signals from the arousal center in their brain.
This team of scientist has named these 175 neurons “pranayama neurons” after the yoga practice of regulating one’s breath. These studies suggest the possibility that the physical link between breathing and our state of mind is critical in stress and relaxation.
Deep Breathing Exercises
There are many breathing techniques that you can practice to relax and relieve tension. The main aim of deep breathing that encourages relaxation is to shift from upper chest breathing to abdominal breathing. So, the abdominal breathing or belly breathing is a basic breathing exercise that you can easily learn and practice. All you need is a quiet, tranquil environment and 10 to 20 minutes of your day. Some of the most common deep breathing techniques include abdominal breathing, progressive relaxation, and guided visualization.
Breathing techniques can be a great way to manage everyday stress in your life. However, some people find that focusing on their breath actually triggers panic. If you experience this, look for alternative relaxation options or contact a trained trauma therapist to help.
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