A simple, brain-based remedy for stress and confusion

Dec 18, 2017 | Change, Stress

Ring in the mental chaos

Though ’tis the season to be jolly, ’tis also the season to feel the chaos or stress – so much to do, so little time…

We all know what it’s like. We lose our clear, calm thinking and shift to survival mode. Our thinking can turn frenzied, chaotic or cloudy. We can forget things, lose motivation and energy, feel anxious or even depressed.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a quick and easy tool to get yourself back to a state of calm and clarity?

Holiday bonus tip: there is!

Ring in the on-the-spot remedy

This simple tool is available to you at any time – your very own on-the-spot remedy for mental chaos.

This simple method has been around since the beginning of time, but for us modern-day skeptics, neuroscientists are now beginning to understand its efficacy for affecting our brains and our emotions.

Have you guessed it yet?

Try this: take a big inhale… now exhale fully. Is it a little clearer now? Yup, you got it – the breath.

For years, I have experienced the power of the breath to help me get more grounded, calm and clear. It is incorporated into my yoga practice, and I use it in coaching with individual clients and in groups. Almost without fail, the breath facilitates a shift to greater calm, clearer thinking, and at times new insight.

But what exactly is it about the breath that helps calm and clear our minds? Neuroscientists have begun studying the effects of the breath on our brains, and so far the results are very exciting!

Essentially, the breath helps to connect different parts of the brain, promoting whole-brain integration which is linked to higher level executive functioning, emotional intelligence, self-regulation and wellness.

How? Read on to learn about three recent neuroscience studies, and/or scroll to the end for 4 on-the-spot breathing tips derived from the research.

Brain functions supported by the breath

In a 2016 study at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, researchers found that breathing improves our ability to judge fear in others and improves our memory.

In the study, people were shown photos of faces and shown different objects while brain activity was monitored. When inhaling through the nose, people identified a fearful face faster and were more likely to remember the objects than during exhalation. This is because with each inhale, we stimulate neurons in the limbic part of the brain (including the amygdala) which is linked to emotional processing and the fight-flight response, and in the hippocampus which is linked to memory functioning. (This was not true when inhaling through the mouth.)

The conclusion? The faster you breathe, the more you inhale, and the better your cognitive functioning under stress. Conversely, slower breathing can help to de-activate or calm the emotional reactions in the limbic part of the brain.

The brain takes cues from the breath

In a study earlier this year at Stanford University School of Medicine, scientists discovered a new breath-related function of neurons in the brain stem of mice. Researchers found that these neurons actually observed breathing and reported back to another part of the brainstem (the locus coeruleus) that stimulates nearly every other part of the brain to do things like wake us from sleep or keep us alert. This area can also over-stimulate the brain causing stress and anxiety.

Jack Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at UCLA and co-author of the study, is hopeful that further study of this breath-observation function in the brain “will lead to therapies for stress, depression and other negative emotions.”

The bottom line? When we consciously accelerate or slow down the breath, neurons are sending signals to the rest of the brain to either pay attention or chill out.

Integrating the brain with awareness and control

A third study from just last month has found that neuronal activity corresponds with the breath in two distinct ares of the brain: the limbic area and the cortex.

Why does this matter? If these two distinct areas of the brain integrate with the breath, then the breath may indeed be a tool for improving our brain functioning and self-regulation. The limbic area regulates the autonomic nervous system (control of automatic functions like blood pressure and breathing), includes the amygdala which is responsible for our fight-flight reactions, and is involved in processing emotions (as in the Northwestern study). The cortex is associated with higher-level thought and functioning.

Subjects were able to affect neuronal activity in the brain in two ways: awareness of the breath; and control of the breath.

With attention to the breath, subjects increased their connectivity or integration of several important areas (anterior cingulate, premotor, insular and hippocampal cortices) associated with the processing of emotion and motivation, subjective understanding of emotions, memory and physical movement.

By controlling the pace of the breath, subjects increased connectivity or integration of a network (fronto-temporal-insular) related to emotional processing and social cognition (e.g., how the brain operates during and interprets social interactions).

The study suggests that working with the breath can actually help to organize neural activity in the brain. Specifically, conscious awareness of the breath helps to integrate brain networks involved in emotional intelligence, motivation, memory and movement. And control of the breath helps to integrate brain networks involved in social and emotional intelligence. 

4 on-the-spot breath tips (based on the research)

BREATH TIP #1: When you can’t remember what you were supposed to do or buy (or when you can’t quite figure out the odd look on Aunt Ida’s face when burning beef sets off the smoke alarm ;), take some extra inhales through the nose.

BREATH TIP #2: When you are feeling over-stimulated and emotionally reactive, take some longer, slower breaths through the nose.

BREATH TIP #3: If you’re feeling emotionally confused (anxious/sad/frustrated all at once), unmotivated, forgetful or clumsy, stop and pay attention to your breathing (through your nose) for a minute or two.

BREATH TIP #4: If you’re feeling anxious about the next social gathering (dreading the annual Christmas party or the big family get-together?), or you’re worrying about what others are thinking, take a couple of minutes to control your breathing. A simple method is to count to a number (try 3, 4, or 5) for each inhale, hold it for a moment, then exhale to the same count. If you’re needing focus, you can increase the number on the inhale; and if you’re needing calm, you can increase the number on the exhale.

How’s your breathing?

How’s your breathing right now? Check it out. Odds are – especially at this time of year – you could stand to slow and deepen the breath a bit. Try it, see what happens. Then, spread the knowledge with your friends by using your favorite social media button below.

Give yourself and others the gift of useful breathing!

Photo by Valentina Aleksandrovna on Unsplash.


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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