why does deep breathing calm you down

Deep breathing relieves stress and anxiety due to its physiological effect on the nervous system. Breathing slowly and mindfully activates the hypothalamus, connected to the pituitary gland in the brain, to send out neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system, which secretes the hormones that regulate all activities throughout the body. The adrenal glands, located on top of both kidneys, interact with the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. The adrenal medulla, the inner portion of the adrenal gland, secretes hormones that control how a person copes with stress. Epinephrine, also called adrenaline, and norepinephrine, called noradrenaline, secreted by the adrenal medulla, increase heart rate and blood pressure, preparing the body for the fight-or-flight response. When under stress or anxiety, the body reacts with the fight-or-flight response. This response prepares the body for anticipated conflict or danger by propelling it into a heightened state of alertness or readiness. This natural response keeps the body out of harm's way. The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system and the enteric nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems regulate how the body deals with stress. During a perceived stressful or dangerous situation, the sympathetic nervous system goes into fight or flight, triggering the adrenal glands to secrete the hormones that increase blood pressure and heart rate. The parasympathetic nervous system works in conjunction with the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the body to secrete hormones to decrease blood pressure and heart rate, inducing a relaxation response.


Breathing deeply and mindfully helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to trigger this response. The enteric nervous system also plays a role in how the body responds to stress. This complex system of neurotransmitters, neurons and proteins--located in the tissue of the esophagus, small intestine, colon and stomach--regulates digestive activity. Sometimes called the brain in the gut, the enteric nervous system sends messages between the digestive system and the brain, much like the central nervous system does with the body. The body experiences intestinal distress when faced with stressful situations due to the enteric nervous system. Digestive disorders such as colitis and irritable bowel syndrome stem from this system. Breathing mindfully takes practice. When under stress, people often breathe in a shallow manner, not using full lung capacity. To breathe fully, sit up straight and place your hands on your belly, directly above your belly button. Let the fingertips of both hands touch lightly. Exhale fully through your mouth. Breathe in deeply through your nose and into your belly, so that your fingertips spread an inch apart. Let your belly fill with air. Hold your breath for two to five counts, and then exhale slowly through your nose. Match the length of the inhale with the length of the exhale. Continue breathing in this manner for five to ten minutes.
When people are before getting surgery, doctors and nurses often tell them to with long exhalations. It may seem like an inadequate way to quell anxiety, but in many cases, it actually works.


Now scientists describe why deep breathing, including the breath-focus of, can induce such calm and tranquility. In a Science, researchers led by Mark Krasnow, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, found that in mice, a group of nerves in the brain that regulates breathing has a direct connection to the arousal center of the brain. In other words, breathing can have a direct effect on the overall activity level of the brain. Krasnow s team has been studying a group of 3,000 neurons in the brain stems of rodents that control all of a mouse s different breathing patterns, from the quick, rapid breathing associated with exertion and excitement, to the slower breathing typical of rest, to sighing and crying. Krasnow found that about 60 types of nerve cells make up this so-called breathing pacemaker, and each of these nerve cell groups are responsible for different breathing patterns. In the study, the group was trying to isolate the different types of neurons and their various effects on breathing. Using a genetic technique, they silenced specific neurons to see what breathing function was disturbed. Their first experiment seemed like a failure when the researchers manipulated one set of neurons, yet the mice didn t show any changes in their breathing. We were very disappointed initially, says Krasnow. They put aside that experiment and moved the manipulated animals to a new cage environment. But that s when they noticed something novel. Normally, moving mice makes them nervous and obsessive about exploring their new surroundings. But instead of sniffing and running around, the mice with the changes in their breathing center seemed to chill, says Krasnow.


They continued their at-rest behavior: grooming themselves and hanging out without a need to urgently investigate their new surroundings. It turns out that Krasnow had disrupted a set of nerves with a direct line to the brain s arousal center; these nerves can either tell the brain there s an emergency and set off the body s alarms, or keep the brain on an even keel, maintaining a sense of calm. This is the change that happens when breathing slows down, says Krasnow. This liaison to the rest of the brain means that if we can slow breathing down, as we can do by deep breathing or slow controlled breaths, the idea would be that these neurons then don t signal the arousal center, and don t hyperactivate the brain. So you can calm your breathing and also calm your mind, says Krasnow. Breathing, in other words, can change the mind, or the state of the mind. So why do some people still feel anxious after a few deep inhales and exhales? It s possible that their genetic variations mean they have a dulled response to this cluster of nerves responsible for regulating breathing, so that it takes more than conscious deep breaths to switch the brain from an aroused to a calm state. In those cases, having something like a drug or other intervention to specifically target the right group of breathing nerve cells and control its activity might be needed. That s where Krasnow hopes the work will lead: to a way to better control the calming effect that deep breathing can have on the brain. In the meantime, he says, don t dismiss deep breathing as a way to combat stress and anxiety. There s now a scientific explanation for why it works.

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