MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL BENEFITS OF BREATHING WELL
Whilst reading the next few sentences, gradually bring your awareness to how you are breathing. Where do you feel the breath in the body? Are you bringing the air in through your mouth or nose? For the next few breaths simply observe where your breath likes to ‘land’ in your body. Is your belly rising fully and freely on the inhalation or is the upper chest slightly puffing up during an inhalation? Are you finding it easy or a little challenging to breathe? Is the exhalation subtle and gentle? Slowly begin to notice which part of your torso is moving more during your next breath. Do your best to try not to alter the breath at all, simply observe which part of the body the breath travels to. Breathe in…..Breathe out… This mindful breath exercise you have just experienced, whereby there is no control over the breath, you are simply observing the movement of the body, is one of the best practices you can do to improve focus, and your overall brain health. What the yogis and Buddhists were practicing 2,500 years ago is finally being acknowledged by modern day science.
A new study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin discovered for the first time, the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention. The research shows that breathing – the foundation of meditation and mindfulness practices – has a direct affect on the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is similar to adrenaline; it affects heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. When we breathe in, there’s an increase in this chemical and a natural fall when we breathe out.
The researchers of Trinity College say: “It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.”
There is further synchronicity between the brain and breathing, in fact there are three major areas of the brain that are affected by the way we breathe:
• The Hippocampus – responsible for memory and regulating emotions
• The Amygdala – responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory
• Piriform Cortex – controls our olfactory system (our sense of smell).
This dynamic trio are all part of our limbic system, which is responsible for basic human emotions, such as anger and fear; along with the basic human instincts such hunger and sex drive. When we breathe in (through the nose) brain activity in these areas is heightened. Fortunately with the conscious and subconscious nature of the respiratory system, and the knowledge of particular breath techniques, we can balance these areas of the brain with just a few breaths.
Here’s how: BREATH COUNTING Breath counting exercises have proven positive effects on the limbic system. A regular breath practice, using nasal breathing techniques can help regulate emotions. Researchers are starting to believe that focusing on our ‘inhalations’ with a breath count are linked to greater activity in the hippocampus, the hub of our memories. We can activate these major areas of the brain with simple breath counting exercises – which appear throughout this book.
BRAINWAVES AND BREATHING RHYTHMS The brain is a complex and hardworking organ. It is made up of around 86 Billion neurons and only weighs around 3 pounds. This relatively small walnut shaped organ in your headspace only takes up around 2 percent of your body weight, but uses an enormous 20 per cent of the oxygen you breathe. These 86 billion neurons communicate with each other in various ways, at different frequencies or ‘waves’ which are synchronised electrical pulses. These brainwaves are the root of all our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Adapting the way we breathe can have a positive effect on the state of our overall brain health and our emotions. We could imagine these brainwaves much like that of a deep vast ocean, some waves are big and crashing, others calm and still, some have a gentle rhythm and pace, others fast and choppy and we can visualise the breath as the changing currents within the ocean. If we can slow and calm these ‘currents’ or the rhythm of the breath, this can have a direct effect on the ‘motion of the ocean’ and our brainwaves will also start to enter a more relaxed state.
The breath and brain activities are closely related and with the breath being both a voluntary and involuntary process, we can fine-tune our breathing to achieve calmer brain activity and a more peaceful state of mind. Let’s have a closer look at some of the different types of brainwaves and how we can use different breath techniques to help balance and connect with certain brainwave activity:
DELTA WAVES Imagine a slow, deeply powerful drumbeat. Delta brainwaves are low frequency and are generated in states of deep meditation and dreamless sleep. Delta waves bring our awareness inwards and are also the source of empathy. Healing and regeneration are stimulated in this state, and that is why deep restorative sleep is so essential to the healing process. Slowing down our breathing rate, and finding ourselves in a deep meditative state through a mindful breathing practice can help us enter these healing and regenerative states.
THETA WAVES When we are Theta waves are dominant, we enter a dreamlike state, where imagery is vivid, and we can often tap into an area of ourselves, which is beyond our conscious awareness. We are most often in this state during deep meditation or sleep. Theta brainwaves are also the doorway to learning, memory, and intuition. In this state our senses are withdrawn from the external world and we focus on signals originating from within. Theta waves are the deepest part of ourselves where the waves carry our fears and unwanted history.
ALPHA WAVES Being in the ‘present moment’ or connecting with the ‘power of now’ means the brain is in an Alpha brainwave state. These perfectly attuned waves promote calmness, alertness and mind / body integration.
BETA WAVES Beta brainwaves are more ‘choppy sea’ variety and dominate our normal waking state of consciousness when attention is directed towards cognitive tasks and the outside world. Beta is a ‘fast’ activity, present when we are alert, attentive, engaged in problem solving, judgment, and decision making, or any other focused mental activity.
GAMMA WAVES Gamma brainwaves are both pacey and subtle and the most mystic waves of the brain. The mind has to be super quiet to achieve a Gamma state. This state is highly active when in states of universal love, altruism, and the ‘alternative states’. Gamma is also above the frequency of neuronal firing, so how it is generated remains a mystery.
GAMMA WAVE BREATHE
• Slows and quietens brainwave activity
• Induces feelings of calm
• Inhale, one continuous, long, slow and smooth breath.
• Pause and hold the breath in, jaw and face relaxed, before exhaling without moving your muscles.
• Exhale in a controlled, relaxed, and continuous fashion.
• Pause after exhaling as you did for the first pause.
• Start the cycle over again.
Start a 2-minute daily practice, building to 15 – 20 minutes to enter a more Gamma state of mind.
A regular practice of breath work can help balance the activity of the brainwaves and we can tweak our breathing to adjust the pace and rhythm of our thoughts. In our everyday lives, we can use simple breath awareness exercises to enter a more Alpha wave (present) state, which is much needed. According to research; we spend half of our lives ‘elsewhere’.
THE WANDERING MIND
According to a Harvard University study, people spend 46.9 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. The nomadic mind is a unique feature of the human race. We are often pre-occupied with past scenarios, thinking of what we could or should have done, or we fast-forward our thoughts into the future, dreaming perhaps of a life that may never blossom into reality. We are literally not here for half of our lives! If we bring our awareness to our breath, we can bring our full awareness to our real life in the here and now. When we distracted from the present moment, our thoughts can often cultivate feelings of stress and anxiety and this puts us under extra pressure and unnecessary strain.
STRESS AND THE BRAIN When our brain perceives a threat, (whether real or not) our core brain instantly shifts into survival mode. Our heartbeat increases, our senses become heightened, and the stress hormone adrenaline is released. Then cortisol is sent into the blood stream to restore the energy lost in the body’s response to the perceived threat. When the stressful event has passed, cortisol levels drop and the body returns to a balanced state. A little shot of these hormones are more than often essential when the threat is real. But, over time, the body demands more adrenaline and cortisol to cope with any so-called stressful situations. The build up of cortisol can inhibit the brain to function properly and can kill brain cells, causing the brain to shrink! It’s paramount for the brain’s wellbeing that we exercise a relaxation response as much as our time allows. A fast and effective way to do this is via a conscious breath practice.
STRESS AND THE BREATH When a person is under stress, their breathing pattern changes. Typically, someone suffering from anxiety will take small, short and shallow breaths, over-using their shoulder, neck and intercostal muscles, rather than their diaphragm in order to breathe. Shallow, over-breathing, or hyperventilation, can prolong feelings of anxiety, by making the physical symptoms of stress worsen. Fully engaging in a healthy diaphragmatic breath helps activate the parasympathetic (or rest and digest) nervous system. Practicing breath awareness and using effective breathing techniques (in particular an extended exhalation) can help calm your brain’s reactivity and recovers your brain’s strength. This in turn can help lower levels of anxiety and induce feelings of calm and relaxation, bringing us back into a balanced state.
BREATHING CAN CHANGE YOUR BRAIN Some studies show that meditation can change the structure of our brains and improve neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to adjust their activities in response to new situations and environments. With the focus on the breath being the foundation of any effective meditation, we can safely say that learning and practicing new breathing techniques can help your ability to think, and feel better. Much like the ocean, which has a magnificent range of motion, from calm to tsunami, our breath and our emotions ebbs and flows in tune with our internal and external environments.
EMOTIONS With such a close relationship between our breathing rhythm and brain, and the observation that we all breathe in a completely unique way, it comes as no surprise that we all feel emotions in our body in varying degrees. We are all on some form of emotional spectrum. Some of us find it difficult to feel any emotions and ‘sense’ feelings in our heads. At the other end of the spectrum, some of us feel everything, in the body, and often feel overwhelmed by these physical sensations and sometimes pain.
FEAR AND LOVE Every emotion is accompanied by it’s own particular breath rhythm. When we feel deeply in love, our breath (and our lives) feels full, open and free. When we feel fearful, our breath is small, shallow, constricted and can temporarily shut down – when we go into fight of flight mode, the breath stops for a moment. The key to managing these varying emotional states is to become aware of how we breathe as we go about our day. Once we have learned to ‘track’ the way we breathe, we can then start to bring about a deeper sense of awareness to how we are feeling. Whilst exploring the nature of our changing breath patterns, we will become more aware of how we are feeling. Noticing when we are breathing in a short and shallow manner can bring our awareness to feeling anxious or nervous or if we catch ourselves breathing in a slow, deep way, we then may notice that this is accompanied by feelings of contentment and a quiet mind. We are then creating choice. We can either react and ‘be angry’ within a situation or we can ‘feel angry’ and observe this through bringing awareness to the breath. The more we practice this simple breath & emotion awareness exercise, the more prepared we will be when trickier emotions arise. Wherever you are in the world, who ever you are with, the breath will always be with you – there to guide you at anytime you need. You can use it to calm, energise, revitalise and ultimately transform all aspects of your life. If you start with a simple daily practice, you can soon be reaping all the benefits a breath practice brings.