There's no doubt that we're living through a very stressful time.
The world is still battling the deadly Covid-19 pandemic and, as people protest their most fundamental rights and freedoms, we're bombarded with footage and imagery at all times that might make us feel anxious.
But thankfully scientists are now closer to discovering how deep breathing can temporarily help us to de-stress.
A group led by scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered the specific neurones that connect breathing and state of mind. They’re located deep in the brainstem, in the body’s breathing control centre. And they have a varied job, since there are so many types of breathing; including regular, excited, sleeping, laughing, crying and yawning.
The researchers decided to pin down which specific neurons within the centre generate the different types of breathing. They did this by wiping out some of these neurons in mice – and realised that in doing so they’d cut the connection between arousal and breathing type. The mice became very relaxed – because their brains no longer had a reason to breathe faster.
Stanford’s write-up of the study states:
Further analysis showed that while these mice still displayed the full palette of breathing varieties from sighs to sniffs, the relative proportions of those varieties had changed. There were fewer fast “active” and faster 'sniffing' breaths, and more slow breaths associated with chilling out.
This told scientists that this one patch of neurons impacts breathing rates by driving arousal. So in the future there’s a possibility scientists could physically manipulate this to improve the emotional states of people with anxiety.
And the secret to how slower breathing helps calm us down?
The investigators surmised that rather than regulating breathing, these neurons were spying on it instead and reporting their finding to another structure in the brainstem. This structure, the locus coeruleus, sends projections to practically every part of the brain and drives arousal: waking us from sleep, maintaining our alertness and, if excessive, triggering anxiety and distress. It’s known that neurons in the locus coeruleus exhibit rhythmic behavior whose timing is correlated with that of breathing.
In other words – these neurons play a big part in the effects of breathing on everything else, including arousal and emotion. So slower breathing equals calmer feelings.
Though of course, as with anything mental health related, different things work on different people.
And another great thing to do is talking about the things that we find stressful, because a problem shared is a problem halved.