The Profound Power of BreathingDeep
controlled breathing — an easy technique you can do anytime —
Take a few normal breaths. Feel your chest rise and fall? If so, you’re doing it wrong, according to breathing therapists and scientists. Make a quick fix there, and maybe introduce a few breathing exercises to your day, and you’ll be able to reduce stress, improve your focus, and even lower your blood pressure, among other health benefits.
Breathing is at the core of ancient (and currently trendy) mindfulness practices, from yoga and tai chi to meditation. However, studies suggest that breathing exercises alone, derived from those ancient yoga practices, can be good for the body and mind. Scientists don’t know which aspects of breathing are most beneficial to your health: the physical act of inhaling deeply, the effect of abundant oxygen and thorough flushing of carbon dioxide (a byproduct of the body’s energy creation), or the relaxation that ensues. “It’s probably some mix,” says Sara Lazar, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who studies the neuroscience of yoga and meditation.
“But there has not been a definitive study to describe the relative contribution of each component.”
Wherever the benefits arise from, deep, controlled breathing, which involves filling the lungs to the max and goes by various names like belly or diaphragmatic breathing, has been linked to improved cognitive performance and lower stress levels. Deep breathing for as little as 10 minutes a day may lower blood pressure. Slow, controlled breathing
— a separate technique that ignores the inhale and focuses on breathing out slowly — can quickly lower the heart rate, helping to combat a panic attack or reduce acute anxiety.
“Anxious patients are often desperate for the immediate relief they expect to find in a pill, yet yoga breathing practices can alleviate anxiety within minutes,” says Richard Brown, associate clinical professor in psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of several books on the topic. “Once people experience this rapid physical relaxation and mental calming, they are more motivated to work with their breath rather than become more dependent on medication.”
If you’re not into yoga…
Belief in the benefits of controlled breathing goes back centuries. Central to ancient Hindu philosophy was prana, described as vital “airs” or “energies” flowing through the body. Stemming from that belief, yoga was built on pranayama, or breath retention. In the first half of the 20th century, deep breathing began to emerge on its own as a relaxation method.
“In fact, every relaxation, calming, or meditation technique relies on breathing, which may be the lowest common denominator in all the approaches to calming the body and mind,” writes Christophe André, a psychiatrist at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center in Paris and author of multiple books on mindfulness, meditation, and happiness.
Nowadays, yoga and meditation are soaring in popularity. A U.S. government report last year found the number of adults who practiced yoga in the preceding year jumped from 9.5% in 2012 to 14.3% in 2017. For meditation, the figure went from 4.1% to 14.2%. But that leaves out many people who, for whatever reason, aren’t into these activities. Might some of them benefit by taking up deep breathing on its own? Let’s first understand the basics of inhaling and exhaling.
Most of the time, breathing just happens. It’s dictated by the autonomic nervous system, centered in the brain stem. Nerve cells there signal the diaphragm and other muscles to inspire and expire (interesting words with other weighty meanings, yes!).
Nerve cells in the arteries monitor the blood’s oxygen levels, signaling the system how fast and how deep to breathe. Other nerve cells keep watch on carbon dioxide levels (CO2) in the blood and in the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain. It’s the amount of CO2, a byproduct of energy created by the body’s cells, that is the primary catalyst for breathing, more so than low oxygen levels. Excess CO2 triggers a message sent to a spot in the primal brain stem to increase the rate and depth of breathing.
It’s at this intersection of consciousness where controlled breathing techniques can get one autonomic system under control and in turn affect others.
Nerves in higher brain centers can, without your permission, increase breathing activity when you feel pain or strong emotions. Extreme stress, whether caused by genuine fear of an imminent threat or perceived dangers like a worry over being fired, instigates a slew of autonomic reactions collectively referred to as the fight-or-flight response. You’ve likely experienced the symptoms: a pounding heart, quickened breathing, perhaps a tensing of the muscles and a little sudden sweating. It’s the body’s way of preparing to confront a marauding band of invaders from the next cave over or to turn tail when stalked by a saber-toothed tiger.
Breathing is the only autonomic system we can wrest control of. But the unconscious signals will often override our thoughtful efforts. It’s at this intersection of consciousness where controlled breathing techniques can get one autonomic system under control and in turn affect others (like heartbeat), alleviate momentary anxiety and longer-term emotional stress, and perhaps even improve physical and cognitive health outcomes.
Michael Melnychuk, a researcher at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, has studied the long-held claim by yogis and Buddhists that meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen the mind. Last year, he looked at how breathing affects levels of noradrenaline, a chemical messenger in the brain that’s released when we’re emotionally aroused, challenged, or just curious. At the right levels, noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine) is like fertilizer for the brain, Melnychuk says, helping it grow new connections.
“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain,” he explains. “When we are stressed, we produce too much noradrenaline, and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little, and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking, and memory are much clearer.”
Noradrenaline is produced in the brain stem, the same place where breathing is controlled — where CO2 levels are monitored and responded to.
In one study, Melnychuk and his colleagues monitored breathing and brain activity while people were asked to make hundreds of rapid-fire decisions about the sizes of similar objects, all requiring a lot of focus. They were not asked to breathe in any certain way. But those who performed well had breathing patterns that were highly synchronized to the task, in terms of how they began each breath as they made decisions. Those making poor decisions had more erratic breathing that revealed no common pattern.
“By controlling the breath, you can influence CO2 levels, and this will have the effect of modulating noradrenaline release,” Melnychuk explains. It’s the first direct evidence that “the way we breathe… directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health,” the researchers concluded in the journal Psychophysiology.
Put another way, the yogis and Buddhists were right: Respiration influences the mind.
Getting back to belly breathing
Normal human breathing at rest should raise the belly, not the chest, says Katherine Rosa of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. Just watch a sleeping child.
Chest breathing is useful, Rosa says, when we need suck in gobs of oxygen quickly to, say, flee that saber-toothed tiger. “But today, we are surrounded by so many stressors that we constantly stay in this state of tension. It doesn’t turn off, and we often don’t even notice it.” To relax during a particularly stressful moment, she suggests taking three slow, deep belly breaths to interrupt the fight-or-flight response.
Adults at rest normally breathe 12 to 16 times per minute. Deep breathing involves drawing in more air, at a controlled pace, to reach a rate of six breaths per minute or less. The basic belly breath of pranayama goes like this: Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Breathe in through your nose and fill your lungs from the bottom up, first expanding your belly, then your chest, and finally raising the collar bones. Pause. Then gently exhale from top to bottom, using your stomach muscles to push out the last of the air. Pause. Repeat.
To develop a rhythm, count to yourself during each step. If you count “one, two, three” seconds on the inhale, “one, two” on the pause, “one, two, three” on the exhale, and “one, two” on the pause, you’ve completed a 10-second breath, a pace of six per minute. (While there is no scientifically proven sweet spot regarding pace, a review of studies published in the journal Breathe found that aiming for six to 10 of these deep breaths per minute has “vast and complex” physiological effects.)
Counting forces you to focus and sets you up to measure progress toward even longer breaths. In fact, you are on the verge of a mindfulness exercise without even trying. This is just one of several controlled breathing techniques shown to have health benefits.
Like most people who are still breathing, I have a lot of stress in my life. I exercise regularly, but yoga and meditation have never appealed to me. I’m not into sitting cross-legged. Forcing positive thoughts into my mind feels, well, forced. And the contortions of yoga frankly just don’t feel good to me. But breathing exercises? That sounds like something familiar.
I’ve been trying out deep breathing in recent weeks, in the afternoons, when stress is high and energy is low. I sit in my home office recliner and start with a few simple deep breaths. Then I begin holding and counting to get the pace down to six breaths per minute for two or three minutes. Then I bring it down to four breaths a minute, then two, then one.
The effect is deeply stimulating, distinct from a runner’s high yet somehow similarly pleasant. With each breath and each lowering of my breathing rate, the problems of the day fade. I don’t realize it or think about it. It just happens, the way a runner’s mind zeros in on breathing and footfalls. I’m not trying to be mindful or meditative. I’m just doing a breathing exercise.
Unlike during traditional exercise, the breathing exercise often causes me to nod off after 10 or 20 minutes, sometimes momentarily, sometimes for a brief nap. That may or may not be your desire or your result. Regardless, at some point, I lose track of time, of everything. After anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, inclusive of any possible nap, I emerge relaxed yet alert and attentive.
Is it mostly the physicality of breathing, the enhanced oxygen-CO2 exchange, or is it the intense, quiet focus that leaves me both relaxed and energized? Nobody knows for sure. And as I settle into my favorite recliner, I’m not sure I care.