Most of the time you breathe without even noticing it, but with each inhalation and exhalation you have the ability to change the way you think and feel within seconds.
Controlling your breathing can combat stress and even make you mentally sharper. In the latest episode of his podcast, Just One Thing, Michael Mosley looks at the surprising science around the effect of your breath on your health and wellbeing.
How you breathe affects almost every organ in our body
Breathing does far more than just supply oxygen to the brain and body. You can change the way you think and feel with the way you breathe. It can change your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, reduce your stress levels and combat anxiety, reduce feelings of pain and even change your brain chemistry to make your mind sharper.
Your brain’s reset button
When you’re stressed, the levels of a chemical called noradrenaline in your brain get too high and your brain’s attention networks are disrupted which gives you a distracted type of thinking. (Some people then start to hold their breath which further exacerbates the problem.) The carbon dioxide levels in your blood begin to rise and that kicks into life the locus coeruleus, a specific part of your brain which starts producing even more noradrenaline. As noradrenaline levels rise even higher and your attention networks start working out of synchrony, it becomes very difficult to focus on just one thing.
When you take a deep breath, it puts a break on this whole system. It is your brain’s reset button. If you stop and breathe in for the count of 4 and out for the count of 6, it targets the locus coeruleus and your noradrenaline levels are brought back down and your attention networks can work again in synchrony.
“It’s the most precise pharmaceutical you could ever give yourself, side effect free,” says neuroscientist Prof Ian Robertson. “You can do it in a meeting and nobody needn’t know you are doing it.”
The power of breath
Controlling your breath can help you regain confidence that you can be in control. “It gives you a little bit of sense of control over your own brain and your own emotions and your own thinking,” says Prof Robertson. Once you can do it over a couple of seconds, it begins to build. “Suddenly, maybe your emotions are not the big terrorist that you don’t have any control over.”
How can you try these breathing exercises yourself?
Prof Ian Robertson says the key is not to fight to control your breath. If you do nothing more than breathe out for a little longer than when you breathe in, you’re on the right track.
So next time you’re feeling under pressure, remember you have the power to change your brain chemistry with a couple deep breaths, whenever and wherever you like!
Here are five things that simply controlling your breath can do for you…
1. Reduce your stress levels and combat anxiety
Calm down the thoughts racing through your head by lowering your heart rate and reducing your fight or flight response. It will break the vicious cycle of panicked thinking and make you feel in greater control of your mind and body.
2. Improve your memory and decision-making
Controlling the way you breathe has been shown to improve memory and enhance problem-solving ability. If you need to think more clearly in the moment, try slowing your breathing. Your thoughts should then clear.
You can also use slow breathing to help you make better spur-of-the-moment decisions. One study involving a group of students at a French business school found that performing deep breathing exercises improved their results in a task involving decision-making by nearly 50%, after just two minutes of doing the exercise!
3. Help reduce feelings of chronic pain
Chronic pain and chronic stress are closely linked. The more stressed you are, the more your body will be in a state of arousal. You’ll be more sensitive to pain signals arising from your body, and one way to break this cycle is to focus on your breathing and lower your resting stress response.
4. Help you get back to sleep
If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and struggling to get back to sleep, slow breathing might be something you can try to help calm down the brain, reduce the firing of your locus coeruleus, lower your alertness and help you get back on the journey to sleep.
5. Bring long-term benefits
Whether it’s through breath-focused meditation, breathing exercises or even breath work as part of singing lessons, paying attention to your breath can have long lasting benefits. Aside from making you better at controlling your response to stress, over time it will put your body into a calmer resting state, with a profound impact on your overall health – from improving your heart health to reducing chronic inflammation.