How Breathing Shapes Our Brain

Better health and relaxation would not be possible without deep, intentional breathing. We know this from meditation, yoga, and life stressors – in the middle of an argument, we instinctively know to breathe deeply to calm ourselves down. Now, the Clinical Medicine department at Aarhus University has delved deeper into how breathing influences our brain activity and its correlation with physical health and mood.

Researchers looked at over twelve previous studies of brain imaging in humans, rodents, and monkeys. Researchers found that, regardless of tasks and whether the brain was a human or animal, we are more sensitive to stress from the world around us when we’re breathing in. On the flip side, breathing out helps our brain “tune out” more of what’s happening around us. That’s an easy mnemonic device to help us remember: Breathe out, tune out.

Just one of many reasons why several breathing techniques suggest making the exhalation longer than the inhalation. “This also aligns with how some extreme sports use breathing. For example, professional marksmen are trained to pull the trigger at the end of exhalation,” according to Professor Micah Allen.

The study suggests that three separate pathways in the brain connect breathing with brain activity and that the brain can be more “excitable,” firing more neurons, during different breathing phases.

The medical community has already drawn links between difficulty breathing and the increased risk for mental health disorders, anxiety, depression, and respiratory illnesses. This study emphasizes a new wave of treatments for various physical and mental disorders, which involves utilizing the breath to find “new ways to realign the rhythms of the brain and body.”

Some breathing techniques that emphasize the longer exhalation are:

Diaphragmatic breathing – breathe in deeply into the belly (not the chest), then exhale slowly. Best done while lying down with your knees up and feet flat on the floor.4-7-8 breathing – breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 8 seconds. Repeat at least four times.Double inhale breathing – inhale through the nose twice and then exhale slowly. Repeat at least four times.

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