Overcoming Angst

How to conquer anxiety.

Breathing: The Little Known Secret to Peace of Mind

We take our breath for granted, but learning to breathe can change our life.

“A few weeks ago shooting, cars exploding, screaming, death, that was your world. Now back home, no one knows what it is like over there so no one knows how to help you get back your normalcy. They label you a victim of the war. I am not a victim... but how do I get back my normalcy? For most of us it is booze and Ambien. It works for a brief period then it takes over your life. Until this study, I could not find [the] right help for me, BREATHING like a champ!” Those were the words of a 25 year old marine, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who partook in the research study I ran with Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Whereas therapeutic and drug treatments had not helped many of the participants who volunteered for my study, a breathing practice - the intervention we used - did. One of the veterans in our study has since gone on to become an instructor so he can share the practices he learned with other veterans. "Thank you for giving me my life back," he told us.

The Breath Is a Powerful Tool to Calm the Mind

We have an intuitive understanding that the breath can regulate our mind and emotions. Most of us have either told others or been told ourselves to "take a deep breath” when things got challenging. Most clinical psychologists use some kind of breathing practice with patients. However, 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!

This finding is revolutionary: We can change how we feel using our breath! Given the fact that it is so difficult to change one’s emotions using thoughts alone - try "talking yourself out of" intense anger or anxiety - , learning to use the breath becomes a very powerful tool. Since it is so difficult "talk" our way out of our feelings, we can learn to "breathe" our way through them.  After participating in a 6-day workshop, veterans who said they had felt “dead” since returning from Iraq said they felt alive again. 2 years later, they are spokespeople for the program, volunteering to encourage other veterans to learn to breathe again.

More Benefits of Learning Breathing Practices

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 www.pwht.org)">(www.pwht.org), in schools (http://www.youthempowermentseminar.org), and in prisons ( http://www.prisonsmart.org/). 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.

 

To stay updated on the science of happiness, health and social connection, see www.emmaseppala.com. Watch Emma's TEDx talk for a great summary of her work.

Follow Emma on Twitter 
Subscribe to Emma on Facebook 
Circle Emma on Google+

Also see the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, ccare.stanford.edu

© 2013 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

Overcoming Angst