Breathing and the brain have a remarkably simple relationship. The brain needs oxygen in order to function. Traumatic injuries and accidents that cut off oxygen to the brain can meet a fatal end when the brain can no longer “breathe”. Part of the reason we find ourselves in an increasingly frantic state when we are experiencing anxiety, panic, or emotional stress of any kind is because we are not breathing. Often, we are hyperventilating, which not only restricts our intake of oxygen, but increases our heart rate as well. Putting the necessity of breath and the brain simply, the brain likes oxygen. Intentional breathing practices like pranayama, meditation, or yoga, for example, force focused oxygen into the brain. Though we are breathing all day long, we aren’t always giving our brains the amount of oxygen that it needs and the brain needs a substantial amount of air.
When we feel like we can’t breathe, we panic. The trained mind is able to remain calm, conserve oxygen, and strategically find a way toward air. Untrained, however, the mind is left to its wild nature of survivalism, frantic to find oxygen before imminent death. We experience this feeling in other ways. Experiencing anxiety, for example, can include shortness of breath and hyperventilation. Panic attacks most often start with the thought that sometime is going wrong or that death is coming. Such sensations are commonly accompanied by a tightening of the chest or constricting of the throat, leading to feeling as though it is becoming impossible to breathe.
Our emotions are closely tied to the breath. Jack Feldman, a neurology professor at UCLA, spoke with The Verge regarding some of his new research on the “pre-Bötzinger complex (or preBötC)”. “It’s a tie between breathing itself and changes in emotional state and arousal that we had never looked at before,” Feldman explained. The specific preBötC neurons affect the arousal state and the arousal influencing brain structure of the locus coeruleus, according to the article. This discovery is the link between the breath and emotion: why we are affected by rapid breathing- think: anxiety- and by calm breathing- think: meditative state. Previous studies eliminated the preBötC neurons in mice and found that their breathing did not change, but the brain’s reaction did, creating more calm despite rapid breathing, for example.
For the future, Feldman and his team of come upon a phenomenal discovery that could lead to tremendous innovation in therapeutic applications. In the meantime, this scientific information emphasizes the fact that learning to control, regulate, and tune into the breath does indeed affect the brain, the mood, and the outlook on life.
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