New book shares science and techniques to breathe better and promote calmness not anxiety

Scrolling social media, amid fran­tic elec­tion-relat­ed posts and news of esca­lat­ing COVID-19 cas­es, you may have come across a friend remind­ing every­one to just breathe.

But can just-breath­ing real­ly make a difference?

In his new book Breath: The New Sci­ence of a Lost Art, jour­nal­ist James Nestor argues that mod­ern humans have become pret­ty bad at this most basic act of liv­ing. We breathe through our mouths and into our chests, and we do it way too fast. There’s even a phe­nom­e­non called “email apnea,” where mul­ti­task­ing office work­ers breathe irreg­u­lar­ly and shal­low­ly, or even hold their breath, for half a minute or more while glued to their devices.

Besides all the wor­ri­some health prob­lems this may cause—detailed point­ed­ly in Nestor’s book—our inep­ti­tude at breath­ing may have anoth­er big con­se­quence: con­tribut­ing to our anx­i­ety and oth­er men­tal health problems.

The rate and depth we breathe at is a huge deter­mi­nant of our men­tal state,” says Elis­sa Epel, a pro­fes­sor at UC San Francisco.

Researchers like Epel are explor­ing this by using breath­ing techniques—some new, some ancient—to help ner­vous peo­ple stave off anx­i­ety. What they’re dis­cov­er­ing is that breath­ing, some­thing we do all the time any­way, could be an over­looked key to find­ing more calm and peace.

How breathing can calm us

We often try to tame anx­i­ety by chang­ing our thoughts—questioning the worst-case sce­nar­ios in our heads, inter­rupt­ing rumi­na­tion with some kind of dis­trac­tion, or going to therapy.

But breath­ing offers a dif­fer­ent approach, bypass­ing the com­plex­i­ties of the mind and tar­get­ing the body direct­ly. Instead of try­ing to think your­self out of feel­ing anx­ious, you can do some­thing concrete—breathe slow or fast, in a par­tic­u­lar rhythm, or through a nostril—and some­times find imme­di­ate relief.

In a 2017 study, high­ly anx­ious peo­ple were assigned to take a course in diaphrag­mat­ic breath­ing relax­ation. They prac­ticed twice a day at home. Diaphrag­mat­ic breath­ing, or bel­ly breath­ing, involves breath­ing deeply into the abdomen rather than tak­ing shal­low breaths into the chest. After eight weeks, they report­ed feel­ing less anx­ious com­pared to a group that didn’t receive the train­ing. They also showed phys­i­cal signs of reduced anx­i­ety: low­er heart rate, slow­er breath­ing, and low­er skin conductivity.

So, a reg­u­lar breath­ing prac­tice might help you feel calmer in your every­day life. But oth­er stud­ies sug­gest that focus­ing on your breath­ing in moments of acute stress could also be useful.

In an old­er study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy, researchers brought par­tic­i­pants into the lab and told them they were going to receive elec­tric shocks. Some of the par­tic­i­pants prac­ticed breath­ing slow­ly before the shocks (which were actu­al­ly nev­er admin­is­tered), while oth­ers focused on breath­ing at a nor­mal rate or didn’t reg­u­late their breath­ing at all. The slow breathers—at about eight breaths per minute—not only report­ed feel­ing less anx­ious while antic­i­pat­ing the pain; they also showed low­er anx­i­ety on a phys­i­cal lev­el, as mea­sured by sweat and blood flow to the fingers.

Anoth­er study fol­lowed up on this research and test­ed three dif­fer­ent breath­ing rhythms: fast inhal­ing with slow exhal­ing; slow inhal­ing with fast exhal­ing; or even­ly paced inhal­ing and exhal­ing. Here, the fast inhal­ing with slow exhal­ing (2 sec­onds in, 8 sec­onds out) was the most effec­tive at reliev­ing both the phys­i­cal and men­tal expe­ri­ence of anxiety.

Of course, breath­ing is a major com­po­nent of many med­i­ta­tion and Bud­dhist mind­ful­ness prac­tices, and it may be a key rea­son why they work. In a small 2017 study, researchers asked peo­ple with anx­i­ety dis­or­der to try either alter­nate nos­tril breath­ing or mind­ful breath aware­ness for 10 min­utes, two days in a row. They found that prac­tic­ing alter­nate nos­tril breath­ing was about three times as effec­tive at reduc­ing people’s feel­ings of anxiety.

These ben­e­fits felt pro­found to the par­tic­i­pants in a small, 12-week yoga breath­ing class in the Unit­ed King­dom. Accord­ing to researchers from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Southampton:

Par­tic­i­pants described feel­ing “more in con­trol,” not­ing “anx­i­ety doesn’t feel debil­i­tat­ing any­more.” One par­tic­i­pant report­ed marked increas­es in con­fi­dence, mind­ful­ness, and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty; [and] greater abil­i­ty to relax.… Three par­tic­i­pants returned to paid employ­ment, anoth­er was able to secure a long-desired job, and anoth­er became able to con­tem­plate a return to work, hav­ing been unable to do so for many years.

The ripple effects of breathing

The way we breathe can set off a cas­cade of phys­i­cal changes in the body that pro­mote either stress or relaxation.

If we’re breath­ing real­ly shal­low­ly and fast, it caus­es our ner­vous sys­tem to up-reg­u­late and we feel tense and anx­ious,” says Epel. “If we’re breath­ing slow­ly, it actu­al­ly turns on the anti-stress response.”

Tech­ni­cal­ly, breath­ing influ­ences the sym­pa­thet­ic (“fight or flight”) and parasym­pa­thet­ic (“rest and digest”) branch­es of our ner­vous sys­tem, and cer­tain tech­niques can pro­mote more parasym­pa­thet­ic calm and relax­ation. Some may also cause us to release hor­mones like pro­lactin and pos­si­bly oxy­tocin, the feel-good hor­mone of love and bonding.

[Breath­ing tech­niques] are allow­ing you to con­scious­ly take con­trol of your breath­ing so you can take con­trol of your ner­vous sys­tem so you can take con­trol of your anx­i­ety,” says Nestor. “When we breathe in a cer­tain way, we are send­ing mes­sages to those emo­tion­al cen­ters of our brain to calm down.”

Oth­er tech­niques, like tummo—a yog­ic breath­ing prac­tice that involves force­ful or gen­tle breath­ing, abdom­i­nal con­trac­tions dur­ing breath hold­ing, and visualization—actually amp up the sym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem, spik­ing our body’s stress to acti­vate a deep­er relax­ation after­ward, the same way tens­ing a mus­cle and then let­ting it go works.

Fast breath­ing can be trig­ger­ing for peo­ple with anxiety—causing the tin­gling limbs and light­head­ed­ness that often accom­pa­ny pan­ic attacks—but that’s part of the point. When you breathe fast and start to feel symp­toms that you nor­mal­ly asso­ciate with anx­i­ety, it may help you re-inter­pret those symp­toms in a less threat­en­ing way. They become less wor­ri­some because they have a clear cause, the same way an ele­vat­ed heart rate dur­ing exer­cise doesn’t both­er us. And if you can con­nect anx­i­ety to faulty breath­ing habits, it means you can change the way you breathe and poten­tial­ly see some improvement.

How to breathe better

If you want to prac­tice breath­ing for bet­ter men­tal and phys­i­cal health, there are end­less tech­niques you can try. Although these shouldn’t be seen as a replace­ment for ther­a­py or a cure for severe anx­i­ety, they can be a free, sim­ple tool for both short-term relief and long-term benefit.

Breath­ing tech­niques could be used as first-line and sup­ple­men­tal treat­ments for stress [and] anx­i­ety,” write Ravin­der Jerath and his col­leagues in a 2015 study.

Many of the tech­niques that have been for­mal­ly researched are derived from pranaya­ma, yog­ic breath­ing that dates back to ancient India:

  • Ujayyi: Deep breath­ing with a nar­rowed throat, cre­at­ing an ocean-like sound, often rec­om­mend­ed while doing yoga asanas.
  • Bhas­tri­ka, or “bel­lows breath”: inhal­ing and exhal­ing forcefully.
  • Nadi Sod­han and Anu­lom Vilom: Types of alter­nate nos­tril breath­ing, where air is inhaled in one nos­tril and exhaled through the oth­er, some­times with breath holding.

There are also a vari­ety of “box breath­ing” prac­tices, derived from the pranaya­ma Sama Vrit­ti, where you inhale for four sec­onds, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four, and repeat. Oth­er timed tech­niques include 4–7‑8 breath­ing, often rec­om­mend­ed to help you fall asleep.

In the same way that mind­ful­ness prac­tice isn’t just med­i­ta­tion, breath­ing as a prac­tice isn’t just wak­ing up every morn­ing and doing 10 min­utes of box breath­ing. Anoth­er impor­tant com­po­nent is being aware of the way you breathe in every­day life (or while you’re check­ing your email).

In Breath, Nestor’s tips boil down to a short list of gen­er­al prin­ci­ples: For exam­ple, make sure to breathe through your nose, slow your breath­ing down (to five or six sec­onds in and five or six sec­onds out), and extend your exhales for even greater relaxation.

So much talk about breath­ing might have you feel­ing anxious—that’s how I felt, at least, while read­ing about all the ways our breath­ing habits are faulty. In one study, the researchers not­ed that anx­ious peo­ple were skep­ti­cal in the begin­ning of the exper­i­ment and had some dif­fi­cul­ty prac­tic­ing. But this group still went on to feel bet­ter at the end of 12 weeks of practice.

All this research illus­trates just how much influ­ence our body has on our mind. Mod­ern life brings many things to be wor­ried about, but, as Nestor writes, not being able to breathe remains one of our deep­est and most pri­mal anx­i­eties. If some­how the way we’re breath­ing is sig­nal­ing to our brains that some­thing is wrong, it’s no won­der we feel anxious—and it’s no won­der that all these breath­ing tech­niques can bring such pro­found healing.

– Kira M. New­man is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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  1. Janice on December 1, 2020 at 11:45

    Would these types of breath­ing help low­er blood pres­sure? I feel anx­ious a lot, due to anx­i­ety about my mon­ey sit­u­a­tion. My BP has been run­ning high, in spite of tak­ing two BP meds. Won­der if it could be hor­mon­al relat­ed. But if cer­tain types of breath­ing, incor­po­rat­ed through­out the day, could reduce my BP, that would be great.

    • Alvaro Fernandez on December 3, 2020 at 12:02

      Hi Jan­ice,

      Breath­ing prop­er­ly indeed helps man­age blood pres­sure, so you could give those tips a try, and also research biofeed­back devices based on heart rate vari­abil­i­ty (HRV), some of which are often avail­able are dis­count­ed rates via insurers/ doctors.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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