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The Science Linking Breath and Emotions
Imagine being startled by the sight of a bear while on a hike. Fear will instantly dictate a change in your breathing patterns. Your diaphragm will tighten, triggering a series of complex reactions in your brain stem, limbic system, and the brain’s cortex. While the diaphragm is the body’s primary muscle of inspiration, it is also governed by emotional states such as fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety.
To further bolster research supporting this connection, a study recently published in the Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare found that stress-induced anxiety and depression can lead to an alteration of the proper functioning of the diaphragm. This can adversely affect one’s emotional state.
It is equally true that an altered emotional state can worsen respiratory disorder and diaphragmatic function.
Western science is now employing a variety of breathing exercises to support the diaphragm, adding to and riffing off of yogic and Ayurvedic breathing pranayama practices aimed at maintaining optimal diaphragmatic function.
How a Lifetime of Stress Can Impact Your Breath
Consider the impact of a lifetime of emotional stress on how you breathe and the ability of your diaphragm to support optimal respiration.
Imagine growing up in a toxic home where yelling, arguing, and God-forbid, hitting or sexual abuse defined your childhood. Reactively, the diaphragm would tighten and breathing would become quick and shallow for each of your 26,000 breaths per day.
Stress-related poor diaphragmatic function compromises the ability of the diaphragm to fully contract and fully relax. The diaphragm, one of the largest muscles in the body, is the only muscle in charge of breathing in the air we need to live and thrive. A weak diaphragm causes shallow breathing and a ribcage that tightens with each breath. The rib cage, much like a balloon has elastic recoil, and is constantly squeezing air, but can literally become a cage without the full contraction (inspiration) of the diaphragm. The long-term emotional effects of this are becoming more understood.
Shallow breathing results in a cascade of stress enhancers and emotional unrest.
A Weak Diaphragm Can Cause These Health Concerns:
- Shallow breathing, which activates stress receptors in the upper lobes of the lungs, linked to anxiety and depression
See also The Science Behind Why Nose Breathing is Better
- Over breathing, which creates high oxygen and low carbon dioxide (CO2), linked to anxiety
- The Bohr Effect, in which low CO2 tightens the bond between blood hemoglobin and oxygen, causing tissue hypoxia
See also How Does Pranayama Work? The Science of Breath Retention (Kumbhaka)
- Digestive issues such as reflux and heartburn
- Lymphatic congestion of the anterior diaphragmatic lymph nodes, linked to greater risk of breast cancer
See also Pranayama for Breast Health
- Poor lymphatic drainage of the abdomen and lower extremities, causing high blood pressure, bloat, extra weight around the belly and hips, cellulite, and toxicity
See also This Breathing Technique Lowers Blood Pressure
- Immune system compromise, since the diaphragm is the major lymphatic immune system pump in the body
The Brain-Diaphragm Connection
The diaphragm is bi-directionally linked to numerous sections of the brain—in particular, the amygdala, which is part of the emotional limbic system. The neurotransmitter dopamine, which is triggered by stress, has been shown to stimulate the amygdala in order to manage emotional breathing.
In the brain stem, the medulla oblongata is also bi-directionally linked to the respiratory system and essentially regulates emotional breathing. These emotion-brain-diaphragm connections support states of self-awareness that have been linked to emotional stability.
While enhancing self-awareness is one of the hallmarks of Ayurveda, it is also an emerging area of science called interoception.
The Science of Self-Awareness
Interoception is the perception or self-awareness of sensations from inside the body. It includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function, such as heart beat, respiration, satiety, and the autonomic nervous system. And new research shows it also includes the internal awareness of feelings and emotions.
In the 1960s, meditation, yoga, and pranayama practices took the West by storm when Westerners witnessed India’s yogis control their blood pressure, heart rates, body temperatures, and immune systems through breath work and meditation. These abilities are achieved by enhancing self-awareness, which eventually leads to conscious control of the unconscious.
Studies have found that effective emotional regulation depends on one’s ability to accurately detect and evaluate internal cues resulting from stressful events.
Studies have also found empirical evidence that links a lack of interoceptive self-awareness to increased risk of emotional disorders.
A coherent relationship with the self through breathing and other Vedic tools supports effective communication between body, mind, and feelings.
2 Breathing Exercises to Start Your Self-Awareness Training
My favorite technique for developing interoception is pranayama, or yogic breath work. The two breathing exercises below help you develop diaphragmatic strength and self-awareness.
Practice 1: Slow Box Breathing with Breath Retention
In addition to strengthening your diaphragm, this pranayama will help you build valuable CO2 reserves in your blood.
It is a form of ujjayi pranayama, or victorious breath, which is a long, slow nasal technique that constricts the glottis in the back of the mouth and forces air to the back of the throat during the inhalations and exhalations. This constriction creates an ocean sound as you breathe through the nose.
Because it is a long and slow breathing technique, ujjayi pranayama allows the necessary time for CO2 to comfortably build up in the blood.
In this version of the breath, called box breathing, you add a comfortable hold at the top of the inhalations and the bottom of the exhalations, which helps build up even more C02. (Each of these four stages—inhalation, hold, exhalation, hold—represents one side of a square in box breathing). The more comfortable you are with higher blood levels of CO2, the more you can calm your mind and nervous system, allowing for more self-awareness.
Start with 5-10 counts for each step. Practice for 10 minutes twice a day and follow with 10-20 minutes of meditation or silent prayer.
Note: During any pranayama or breathing practice, never strain. Breath retention should always be comfortable with no strain or dizziness. This can be practiced sitting up or lying down.
Practice 2: Pratiloma or Inspiratory Muscle Training
The benefits of a diaphragmatic breathing exercise called Inspiratory Muscle Training are mounting.
Studies have linked strengthening the diaphragm in this way to better sleep, breathing, exercise tolerance, blood pressure, acid digestion, breast health, lymphatic function, immunity, and more.
This type of breathing encourages deeper inhalations and exhalations, to counter the shallow breathing many of us experience as a result of a sedentary lifestyle or illness.
Learn inspiratory muscle training here.
Try any or all of these breathing practices and notice what changes for you.