How Mastering Your Breath Can Help You Control Your Nerves
Humanity has been refining the art of breathing for millennia.
How hard can breathing be? Most babies master the skill in the first few seconds after birth, after all. It turns out, though, that most of us could probably breathe more effectively. And doing so, research suggests, could make us healthier.
To be clear, as long as you are inhaling and exhaling regularly, you are doing more than enough to survive. But as with everything in life, there are always ways to improve.
In fact, humanity has been refining the art of breathing for millennia. Pranayama, an ancient practice focused on regulated deep breathing, emerged in India as far back as 5000 years ago, evidence suggests. Intentionally breathing in a certain way is thought to bring about a sense of well-being and even improve biological processes such as circulation and digestion. While researchers still haven’t nailed down exactly how pranayama (and other forms of intentional breathing) affects the body, some evidence shows a link between these practices and beneficial health outcomes.
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What is breathing, and how does it work?
Considering how complex breathing actually is — it involves a coordinated effort by the lungs, diaphragm, and the intercostal muscles that are interspersed between the ribs — it’s a wonder anyone is alive at all.
The diaphragm rests below the lungs and above the abdominal cavity. When you inhale, this muscle flexes downward to create enough space for the lungs to inflate. Exhalation relaxes the same muscle back upward, compressing the lungs as they empty. Luckily, the autonomic nervous system, which you don’t control consciously, takes care of the entire process.
The relationship between the respiratory system and the autonomic nervous system isn’t a one-way street. Rather, it's a bidirectional pathway, says Eric Garland, a psychotherapist, and professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work. The pathway that controls breath also passes through the brain’s limbic system, which regulates your emotions, and the two affect each other. Breathing also has an effect on the nervous system, which influences everything from heart rate to muscle tension.
Breathing all the way through to the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve, which is “the main pathway of the nervous system,” Garland tells Inverse. Activating the vagus nerve with deep breaths turns up the parasympathetic nervous system, which contains the nerves that relax the body after a period of stress. This is why taking deep breaths can lead to feelings of calm.
How can intentional breathing change your life?
When properly honed, these deep breaths can lower blood pressure, relieve pain, and encourage the body to heal.
Fadel Zeidan, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of California, San Diego, studies how breathing and mindfulness work as analgesics. In a 2020 study he led, his team found that participants who practiced mindfulness — exercising awareness of an ongoing action, like your breath — while receiving a painful stimulus felt less pain than those who didn’t.
David Spiegel, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, co-authored a recent paper in the journal Cell on breathwork and anxiety. Deep breathing, his paper found, can significantly reduce physiological arousal and mental distress. His team compared different types of deep breathing and found that one particular type — cyclic sighing — had an edge over mindfulness practices, box breathing, and cyclic hyperventilation (more on those later). Cyclic sighing consists of three steps: One long inhale through the nose, followed by an additional short inhale through the nose, and ending with one long exhale through the mouth.
“The cool thing about breathing is it's right at that edge where if you just let it go, it'll do its thing, but you can easily control it,” Spiegel tells Inverse. In other words: It doesn’t take much to exert a little control over a breath. A little can go a long way.
How to breathe better
One popular technique is square breathing or box breathing, so called because its steps are visualized as a square that expands each breath cycle to a whopping sixteen seconds. Each side of the square represents four seconds each of inhale, hold, exhale, hold, and repeat. If you notice yourself taking short, shallow breaths or feel tense, box breathing is a good place to start.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breaths, stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system.
Here’s how to do it: Imagine air filling your belly rather than your lungs, and feel your abdomen expand with an inhalation. As you exhale, contract your abs as you empty every bit of oxygen from your lungs. Spiegel also underscores the parasympathetic nervous system’s role. “A lot of self-soothing involves not so much turning down the sympathetic nervous system, but turning on the parasympathetic nervous system,” he says. This system switches on every time you drift to sleep so the body can wind down into a rest state. That’s not to say naptime is the best way to relax, but that turning up the parasympathetic nervous system just enough can do wonders for our waking minds. Moments of distress, major or minor, call for belly breaths. The American Lung Association recommends five to 10 minutes of belly breaths to calm down, relax, or regulate breathing patterns in an anxious moment.
Breath of fire, a.k.a. holotropic breathing or hyperventilation, on the other hand, stirs up energy and can even promote a dreamlike state of mind. This practice involves deep, rapid inhales and exhales with no pauses in between. This practice “can produce really powerful tingling and buzzing sensations all throughout the body,” Garland says. He says this feeling comes from decreased carbon dioxide levels in the blood. While there’s plenty of research on hyperventilation, there’s less on the effects of holotropic breathing as an intentional practice. Breath of fire isn’t employed as an everyday practice so much as a way to experience emotional release. This type of breathing can help you connect with extreme sadness or anger.
One technique focuses less on controlling breath but simply observing it. Breathing mindfully — a key component of the practice of mindfulness — asks the breather to give attention to their natural breath, following it without altering it. Simple, however, doesn’t mean easy.
“When I’m practicing mindful breathing, I’m noticing the temperature of the air moving in and out of my nostrils, the coolness of the air, the way the muscles flex,” Garland tells Inverse. This method lends itself to noticing your body at that moment rather than trying to change something. Garland notes mindful breathing’s benefits are most pronounced when practiced daily. It can be a great morning start or a way to quiet the mind in the middle of a busy day.
Spiegel’s Stanford study compared deep breathing with mindfulness and found that the former’s effects were more pronounced, but both do the body and mind good. Garland, who was not involved in the study, notes that meditation practitioners’ sessions last longer than the study’s prescribed five minutes. Spiegel recognizes this limitation. “To be fair to mindfulness, people don't usually do it for just five minutes,” he tells Inverse. “They do it for 15 to 30 minutes.”
Of the many breaths you’ll take today, see how making even one, a deep or mindful breath changes your mind or body.