We all experience a sudden attack of anxiety and start to panic sometimes. But what if there was a way to stop it? Without medication and therapies? Just with breathing? Thankfully, there is.
Your breath controls your nervous system through “breathing pacemaker” – a group of neurons at the base of the brain stem. We now know that there is a link between the breathing pacemaker and emotions, breathing rate and arousal.
In a mouse study, the breathing pacemaker was found to directly connect to the arousal center in the brain. When the scientists “silenced” certain neurons in the mice’s breathing pacemakers by giving them “at-rest’ breathing patterns, they remained chill even when put in stressful situations. Now, we can be sure that this group of neurons has 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 calm. Meaning this: when you intentionally slow your breathing down, these neurons don’t send the panic signal and you stay relaxed.
When you control your breathing, more oxygen enters your body while more carbon dioxide exits. You start to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and slowing down your heart rate when taking long, deep breaths. Parasympathetic nervous system is linked to the vagus nerve – a nerve running from the base of your brain to your abdomen. Science says that anxiety, depression, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease might be mediated by the vagus nerve.
How to calm your breath
The simplest (and most common) way to calm your breath consists of three parts: breathing in – holding your breathing – breathing out. Take a moment and try it yourself:
- Inhale deeply through your nose for a count between three and six, making sure your abdomen expands. Keep your mouth closed.
- At the top of the inhalation, hold your breath for two to four counts.
- Breathe out completely through your mouth or nose for a count longer than the inhalation.
Besides managing anxiety, slowing down your breath also has other, science-proved benefits for your brain and body. It reduces stress, lowers your blood pressure and heart rate when practiced regularly and even increases your brain 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. By decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, which have been shown to limit neurogenesis, deep breathing may also facilitate the birth of new brain cells.