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From a young age we are taught the importance of ‘taking a deep breath’ if we are experiencing heightened emotions.
We are all aware of our breathing quickening when we enter fight or flight mode. But what exactly is the connection between our emotions and our breathing, and how can we use this connection to our benefit?
Our bodies are complex machines, deeply affected by their inputs and the way we treat them. What we eat, how much sleep we get, and how much we move can all have a dramatic impact on our overall health.
The complex ways in which they affect the chemical makeup of our bodies — think hormones and endorphins — means that our behaviors all impact our mental health and emotional states as well. The intimate relationship between the body and the mind can’t be understated.
The flow of oxygen in, and the flow of carbon dioxide out of the body, is one of the most fundamental bodily processes, almost entirely controlled by our subconscious.
When our emotions are heightened, chemicals released into the body can change the way we breathe, causing more or less oxygen to enter the body. Once we learn how to control our breath, we begin to regain control over this process, allowing ourselves to affect our emotional states and bring balance and clarity.
What the Research Says
If we break emotions down to the fundamentals, they are ‘action programmes’ that our brains utilize to force us to behave in a way to bring the body back to stability and safety.
The way it achieves this is by releasing hormones that force physiological responses such as heavy breathing or an increased heart rate, which allow us to escape from danger, deal with confrontation, or work all night to reach a deadline. The body’s goal is always to reach homeostasis, the position of stability that allows us to thrive.
This subject is gaining momentum in the scientific world, although as Jerath and Beveridge point out, the study of emotions in a laboratory is a difficult task, as stimulating real world emotions artificially is not an easy process. This makes it difficult to attribute exact physiological responses to the specific emotions, as there is never a single physiological marker that can be definitively connected to emotions. That being said, general observations can be made from laboratory and real world analysis of the body during specific situations.
In their report, Jerath and Beveridge note that negative emotions such as fear, stress, and anxiety all elicit shallower, faster breathing patterns. Positive emotions have a variety of responses, from slower, deeper breathing when relaxed to faster, shallower breaths when excited or aroused. Evidence is mounting that consciously controlling breathing during periods of negative emotions in fact strengthens positive emotions.
A study by Homma and Masoaka has also found a connection between our sense of smell and our emotions, which they also attribute to the changes in breathing patterns. When participants of their study were offered pleasant smells, their breathing lengthened and deepened and the participants reported feeling their mood lifted.
On the other hand, when they were offered unpleasant smells their breathing became shallow and rapid. This ties in with the discovery using MRI scans that area of the brain that processes scents is the same area that deals with emotions and discrimination in humans. This is why aromatherapy and incense can have such a profound impact on mood.
A study at Stanford University demonstrates the science behind using slow breathing to bring about a sense of calm and tranquility, which scientists attribute to a tiny cluster of nerve cells in the brain stem which are responsible for the pattern and rhythm of our breathing, but are fundamentally connected to our emotions.
In mice, these researchers were able to isolate the exact cluster of nerves that affected their ability to sigh, and studied the differing behaviors of the mice with and without that ability when introduced to stressful situations.
The researchers believe that this tiny cluster of cells is what is sending our signals of relaxation and positive emotions when we control our breathing during pranayama or meditation, and even why sighing and yawning can have profound effects on our energy and mood.
How to Harness the Power of the Breath
So, how can we harness this power and use breathing to bring about a positive impact on our emotional state? It can be as simple as taking time to become aware of the breath — if you notice a quickened or shallower breath, use focus and try to bring it back to long and deep breaths.
It is suggested that practicing diaphragmatic breathing can help to slow the heart rate, helping us to escape the fight or flight mindset. To do this, simply focus on bringing deep, long breaths down into the stomach, ensuring the stomach expands as you breathe in, and sucks back into the body as you exhale.
Alternatively, counting the breaths is a good way to bring about positive emotions, while also allowing the mind to begin to enter a meditative state.
Try breathing in for four counts, holding for four counts, and breathing out for six. When your exhalation is longer than your inhalation you are convincing your body that it is not in a state of anxiety, and this allows you to enter a state of relaxation, and your mind to clear.
As you begin to get the hang of these breathing styles, you can start to bring them into day to day life as part of general mindfulness practice. We become truly in charge of our emotions when we begin to understand the intimate connection between them and our breath.
Practicing breathwork allows us to notice changes in our breath brought about by changes in mood, and gives us the tools to change the breath and therefore change the mood. Breathwork is a powerful and fundamental tool, so take some time to learn these techniques to see how it can impact your well-being.