We’ve all been in situations where we are upset – angry, anxious, jealous, you name it – and there’s nothing we can do! We’re steaming, shaking, a general basketcase. Those are the moments we say or do things we later regret. The problem is, we’ve never learned tools to regain our cool in these times. The irony is that our greatest tool is always with us. That’s right, our breath. Of course, we’ve heard the expression “take a deep breath” but we’ve never taken it seriously. Science is showing that it’s something we should immediately take seriously. It may just be the best kept secret to peace of mind.
The Breath Is a Powerful Tool to Calm the Mind
Because breathing happens automatically, many of us don’t give the breath as much attention as it deserves nor have we learned to harness its full potential to calm our minds.
One of the reasons why breathing can change how we feel is that emotions and breathing are closely connected. A revealing research study by Pierre Phillipot showed that different emotional states are associated with distinct respiration patterns. In Phillipot’s study, participants came in and were instructed to generate emotions like sadness, fear, anger and happiness to the best of their ability. While they were experiencing the emotions, Phillipot’s team requested participants to closely observe and report on their own respiration patterns. The research team found that each emotion was associated with a distinct pattern of breath. For example, when the participants felt anxious or afraid, they breathed more quickly and shallowly and when they felt happy, they breathed slowly and fully. Even more interesting was the follow-up study in which the researchers invited in a different group of participants into their lab and instructed them to breathe in the patterns they had observed corresponded to emotions. The researchers literally told the participants how to breathe and then asked them how they felt. Lo and behold, the participants started to feel the emotions that corresponded to the breathing patterns!
Pay attention. This finding is literally revolutionary, folks: We can change how we feel using our breath! Given the fact that it is so difficult to change our emotions using thoughts alone (go ahead, try talking yourself out of intense anger or anxiety), learning to use the breath becomes a very powerful tool. You may not be able to talk your way out of our feelings, but you can learn to “breathe” your way through them. Believe me, I’ve seen it in action with one of the most traumatized populations. After participating in a 6-day workshop, young veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan with severe trauma who said they had felt “dead” since returning from war now said they felt alive again. Though stricken with a severe anxiety disorder, they are all of a sudden able to sleep again, to feel comfortable in crowds, and to stop starting at every loud sound. If it can impact them so profoundly, just think what it can do for you.
More Benefits of Learning Breathing Practices
How does this happen? Several studies suggest that controlled yogic breathing has immediate and positive effects on psychological well-being, as well as on physiological markers of well-being, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Within minutes you will feel better and place your body in a significantly healthier state. The long-term effects of a daily breathing practice are even more pronounced. By activating the part of our nervous system associated with “resting and digesting” (the parasympathetic nervous system), breathing practices may “train” the body to be calmer. For example, preliminary studies have found that regularly practicing breathing exercises lowers one’s level of cortisol — the “stress hormone.” Having lower levels of this hormone may be indicative of an overall calmer state of being, which may translate into less reactivity in the face of inevitable life stressors and less risk of heart disease. Although substantial studies of yogic breathing and the brain have yet to emerge, preliminary brain studies of meditation and the breath suggest that they activate brain areas involved in the control of the autonomic system, such as the insula. Control of the breath appears to activate brain regions that guide the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” processes of the body, perhaps thereby inducing its calming effects. Deep breathing has even been found to reduce pain.
A Breathing Practice to Try at Home: Alternate Nostril Breathing
This gentle pranayama is said to cool the mind and emotions. You may notice that, at any given time, one nostril is dominant (that is, air flows more smoothly through one nostril and only partially through the other). The dominant nostril alternates throughout the day. Preliminary research suggests that breathing through the right nostril oxygenates the left side of the brain, while breathing through the left nostril oxygenates the right side of the brain. One of the reasons alternate nostril breathing may induce its calming and balancing effects on the mind is that it gently allows for airflow through both nostrils.
To practice, place the index and middle finger of the right hand on the center of the eyebrow, and place the thumb on the right nostril, and the ring finger and pinky on the left nostril. The left hand rests on the lap, palm facing up. Take a deep breath in and, closing the right nostril with your thumb, breathe out through the left nostril. Then take a deep breath in through the left nostril, close the left nostril with your ring finger and pinky at the end of the inhale, and exhale through the right nostril. Take a deep breath in through the right nostril and, closing the right nostril with the thumb, exhale on the left side, and start over. Do this with your eyes closed for about five minutes. Notice the effects on your body and mind.
Want to Learn to Breathe Again?
The veterans I worked with learned the practices taught in the Project Welcome Home Troops workshop, which teaches Sudarshan Kriya Yoga. The International Association for Human Values offers this program programs for veterans, in schools, and in prisons. This practice is also taught for the general population by the Art of Living Foundation (see artofliving.org). Elementary yogic breathing practices can also be learned in general yoga classes. Kundalini yoga classes, for example, place a particular emphasis on breathing practices.
Emma Seppala, Ph.D. is the Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Emma completed her undergraduate degree at Yale University and Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University. Her doctoral research focused on interventions to increase compassionate behavior and social connectedness. She completed her post-doctoral research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Dr. Richard Davidson where she evaluated the effects of yoga- and meditation-based interventions for combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her research fields of expertise include compassion, emotion regulation, happiness, and mind-body interventions for well-being. You can learn more on her website at emmaseppala.com.
Republished with permission from emmaseppala.com.