How Your Breath Controls Your Mood and Attention

Slow down, take a deep breath. It’s not merely common-sense advice to calm a racing heart or panicked thoughts. It also reflects what meditation, yoga, and other stress-reducing therapies teach: that focusing on the timing and pace of our breath has powerful positive effects on our body and our sense of well-being. A new study in the Journal of Neurophysiology supports this, revealing that many different regions of the human brain respond to paced breathing. 

Paced breathing involves consciously inhaling and exhaling according to a set rhythm. For example, you might inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 6, and repeat. Prior research shows that paced breathing exercises can both focus attention and regulate the nervous system. To date, however, we have known little about how this affects brain function in humans.

These findings represent a breakthrough because, for years, we’ve considered the brain stem to be responsible for the process of breathing. This study found that paced breathing also uses neural networks beyond the brain stem: networks responsible for emotion, attention, and body awareness. If we can tap these networks by using the breath, we unlock a powerful tool for regulating our body’s responses to whatever’s happening in our lives, rain or shine.

Your Brain on Paced Breathing

In this study, researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research wanted to better understand how the brain responds to different breathing exercises. They recruited six adults  who were already undergoing intracranial EEG monitoring for epilepsy. (EEG monitoring involves placing electrodes directly onto the brain to record electrical activity and see where seizures originate.) These adults were asked to take part in three breathing exercises while their brains were being monitored.

The first exercise looked at rapid breathing. Participants rested with their eyes open for about eight minutes while breathing normally. They then sped up their breath, to a rapid rate, for just over two minutes, while breathing through the nose, and finally slowed back down to regular breathing. They repeated this cycle four times.

The next exercise focussed on intentional breathing. Participants were asked to count how many times they inhaled and exhaled for two-minute intervals, and report how many breaths they’d taken. Researchers monitored how many breaths participants took during each interval, noting when responses were correct and incorrect. 

Activity in the region of the amygdala suggests that a person’s rapid breathing rate may trigger brain states like anxiety, or feeling states, like anger or fear… Conversely, it may be possible to reduce fear and anxiety by slowing down our breath.

Lastly, they were asked to do a focusing task while wearing a device that monitored their breathing cycle. The focusing task had them view a video screen containing black circles and different fixed locations. They were asked to press one of 4 keyboard keys as quickly as possible when they saw one of the circles change from black to white. They didn’t focus on their breathing. 

At the end of the study, researchers looked to see how participants’ breathing rates varied across different tasks, and noted whether their brain activity changed depending on which task they were doing. They found that breathing affects brain regions including the cortex and midbrain more widely than previously thought. 

Managing Stress: Is It All In the Breath?

For example, when participants breathed faster, researchers saw increased activity across a whole network of brain structures, including the amygdala. Activity in the region of the amygdala suggests that a person’s rapid breathing rate may trigger brain states like anxiety, or feeling states, like anger or fear. Rapid breathing tends to occur during periods of anxiety, stress and exertion. Other studies have also found that people tend to be more attuned to fear when asked to breathe more rapidly. Conversely, it may be possible to reduce fear and anxiety by slowing down our breath. 

The present study also identified a strong connection between participants’ intentional (that is, paced) breathing and activation in the insula. This brain region helps to regulate the autonomic nervous system—which in turn regulates our internal organs—and body awareness. Prior studies link intentional breathing to posterior insular activation in humans, suggesting that paying particular attention to the breath may increase awareness of one’s bodily states—a key skill learned in practices like yoga and meditation.

Finally, researchers noted that when participants was accurately tracking their breath, a region of the brain involved in moment-to-moment awareness (the anterior cingulate cortex) and the insula were both more active. 

All told, the results of this study support  that particular types of breathing (rapid, intentional, and attentional) involves parts of the brain responsible for thinking, feeling and behavior. This raises the possibility that particular breathing strategies may be a tool that people can learn to help manage their thoughts, moods, and experiences.

Original author: B Grace Bullock PhD
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