Your Mother Was Right...Deep Breathing Actually Relieves Stress (And Science Confirms It)
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How many times in panicked moments have we rolled our eyes at the suggestion of taking a few deep breaths to calm ourselves? Physiologically, anxiety feels all-consuming and complex in its causes, so a simple remedy in the form of slow, controlled breath cycles often comes up short in our momentary reasoning. Generally, we dismiss these suggestions and go back to driving ourselves mad.
But here’s the thing — your mother, in her innocent suggestion, was correct: breathing is actually the very thing controls our anxiety. A cluster of cells in the brainstems of mammals, known as the “respiratory pacemaker,” appears to regulate our anxious responses by taking cues from the speed and depth of our breathing.
Until recently, the respiratory pacemaker, was something of a “black box” mystery to medicine; scientists knew it was active somewhere in the gray area between the mind and body, but didn’t understand how exactly it worked there. This past spring, Stanford University published a study on the breathing patterns of mice, that changes all of this and begins to unravel the mystery that has long obscured the relationship between the brain and the physical functions of the body.
We’ve seen countless cultural traditions use focused deep breathing as an essential part of their meditation and wellness practices across history, and now, with a deeper look into the complex functions of the respiratory pacemaker, science has the clear evidence to show that deep breaths really are worth the hype.
Some Background: What Taoists Already Knew About Deep Breathing As A Stress Reducer
Before we give our mothers too much credit (they certainly deserve some), the understanding of breath as a restorative force and tool of self-mastery came in its earliest incarnations from practitioners of Taoist arts over many millennia.
We know a universal theme in Taoism is restoring and maintaining balance in ourselves, nature, and all aspects of life. If one aspect of our mental or physical state is compromised, it adversely affects many other parts of our being in a sort of domino effect. However, breath is one of very few major bodily functions we can actually control. Taoists knew they could use breath to re-establish mental and physical balance regardless of environmental agitators.
Practitioners of breath-focused practices like Qigong understood something fundamental and primal about the way our bodies and those of our animal kin functioned — control of breath meant control of self. Scientists put this theory to the test, in animals not capable of consciously regulating their own breathing patterns, and the results, you might say, took their breath away.
The Mice Breathe Easy
Mice have an instinctive behavior many of us are keenly aware of — when they find themselves in a new space (like an apartment), they scurry about wildly, sniffing and quickly trying to make sense of their surroundings. Their quickened breathing, activated by cells in their respiratory pacemakers that trigger sighs every few minutes, would swiftly elevate the mice to a nervous, agitated state in the presence of a new environment.
If they didn’t have this sighing impulse, though, would their behavior be different in a stressful situation? Scientists were able to test this theory by breeding mice with just one of these cells that could easily be disabled. When these mice were exposed to new cages, they remained calm and stayed put, grooming themselves without haste.
Scientists deduced that the respiratory pacemaker, doesn’t just regulate breathing function; it also checks its work by adapting brain activity to the status of the animal’s current breathing patterns. No choppy sighs — no nervous mice.
What Science Also Knows About The Power Of Deep Breathing
Scientists and meditation practitioners know that focused deep breathing quickly changes the way our brains work in the moment. Throughout most of our waking hours, our brains emit Beta brainwaves, which keep our minds attentive, and cautious. It’s a good state for accomplishing many of our daily responsibilities with necessary care, however, as we all experience at certain points, this state can also wear us down.
The slow rhythmic breathing of Qigong and other Taoist breathing practices such as SunDo or Dahn Yoga trigger a very different mental state — taking the brain from stressful beta waves to soothing and rejuvenative theta waves, which are optimal for deep relaxation, healing, clear-headedness, and strong immune function.
Next time your mother suggests you take some deep breaths or try a little yoga, hold off on the snark and give it a shot. There’s a good chance you’ll be surprised, and mom now has the science to back it up.
Ban Shanbrom is a freelance writer and SunDo student. To learn more about Taoist deep breathing practice and how breath meditation can lead to greater relaxation and optimal wellness, visit www.sundointernational.com. SunDo is a style of Taoist practice characterized by subtle breathing techniques performed while holding various postures, that activate, build and circulate vital life energy.