Stress and anxiety are increasingly part of everyday life, but it can be reduced by deep breathing exercises, controlling the breath, to induce a state of calm and focus.
Research suggests the practice has multiple benefits; it induces an overall sense of well-being while reducing anxiety and improved sleep.
In an experiment on mice, scientists identified a circuit of neurons, a tiny cluster of a mere 350 nerve cells, among millions in the mouse brain, that regulate the connection between breathing and the higher-order brain activity that affects how calmly or worked up the mice behaved.
When the scientists removed these cells, they found that the mice still breathed normally, but they were uncharacteristically calm. This discovery, the researchers said, may someday lead to therapies to help people who have anxiety, stress and panic attacks.
“If something’s impairing or accelerating your breathing, you need to know right away,” said Dr. Mark Krasnow, professor of biochemistry at the University of California.
“These 175 neurons, which tell the rest of the brain what’s going on, are absolutely critical.”
The neurons which link breathing to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety are located deep in the brainstem. They can pick up on the differences in sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, laughing and sobbing.
The deep breathing exercises have one simple rule, exhale for double the amount of time you inhale.
Put simply, if you breathe in and count to four seconds, you should then slowly exhale and count to eight seconds as you do it.
This triggers a change in the nervous system from ‘sympathetic’ mode, which is what we associate with fight or flight, to ‘parasympathetic,’ or ‘rest and digest’ mode.
During times of stress, the nervous system becomes over stimulated leading to an imbalance.
A deep breathing exercise slows down the heart rate and relaxes the muscles, similar to when the body rests or sleeps and ultimately restores calm.
The research was published in the journal Science.