On average, a person at rest takes about 16 breaths a minute for a total of 23,040 breaths per day, and it all happens automatically, without conscious thought. Unless we’re out of breath from exercise or having an asthma attack, we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about how we breathe or how our breathing affects our bodies.
Scientists have known for a long time that breathing is connected to the brain, but only recently did they figure out that how you breathe triggers physical changes and that breathing directly affects your brain, mood, and stress level.
Breathing is initiated by a particular cluster of neurons in your brain. In one study with mice, the researchers were looking for the specific neurons that had a role in breathing. They focused on what they called the “breathing pacemaker.” They silenced 175 specific neurons expecting that this would alter breathing patterns. They were surprised to discover this did not occur. Instead, the mice became noticeably more relaxed. It turned out that the neurons isolated are those that positively regulate neurons in the Locus Coeruleus, which is linked to arousal. In other words, scientists had found the precise link between breathing rate and emotional state. By silencing the neurons that control how fast the mice were breathing, the mice became more relaxed showing that slower, steady breathing patterns are ideal.
Other research published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that natural breathing isn’t as passive as once thought. Your breathing rate changes based on your environment or your emotional state, but rather than being the result of your mental state, scientists believe your body uses breathing to promote changes in your brain such as triggering goal directed behaviors or influencing your ability to make emotional judgments and form memories. The research also suggests that controlled breathing can improve health conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
A study presented in 2016 at the International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health showed that daily yoga and controlled breathing improved depression symptoms as effectively as antidepressants. Not only did depression symptoms improve, but levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a calming neurotransmitter, increased. Controlled breathing has been found to trigger the relaxation response, which slows your heart rate and digestion and helps you feel calm. Slow and deep breathing decreases the effects of stress on the body and improves physical and mental health. If you’ve ever told someone, “Take a deep breath,” to calm down, you’re using science to promote relaxation and clear the brain of anxiety.
So while our breathing is automatic, it can be both an involuntary and voluntary process. With practice, you can alter the speed and depth and mechanics of your breathing to alter your physical and mental states. Short, slow, steady breathing activates your parasympathetic response, which can calm you and help you focus more clearly on your goals. One simple way to practice your breathing skills is by listening to a BrainTap guided visualization. During each session, you are guided to produce deep, rhythmic breathes, making it easier to achieve the slow, steady breathing pattern you need to put you in the right physical and mental state for creating the life of your dreams!
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