We all know that our breath sustains life through the rhythmic exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. We also know through yoga and meditation practices that slow rhythmic breathing is a way to regulate our emotions. But what is not well known is that breathing also influences our brain. "New evidence demonstrates that the act of breathing exerts a substantive, rhythmic influence on perception, emotion, and cognition, largely through the direct modulation of electrical brain rhythms."
Breathing influences our perception, emotion, and cognition.
We're more sensitive to sensations from the outside world when we're breathing in. "Natural breathing synchronizes electrical activity in the olfactory cortex, as well as in limbic-related brain areas, including the amygdala and hippocampus." "These brain areas mediate motivational and emotional processing. This effect is absent when "breathing was diverted from the nose to the mouth."
Our breathing pattern also affects our cognitive functioning. In a study that "investigated respiratory cycle effects across six different task paradigms spanning emotion discrimination, visual memory, sound detection, pitch discrimination, and visual motion discrimination. They showed that across all modalities, participants exhibited a tendency to align their breathing rhythm to the timing of the task, inhaling during stimulus presentation and exhaling when responding."
Difficulty breathing is associated with mood disorders.
"Difficulty breathing is associated with a very large increase in the risk for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. It is well-known that respiration, respiratory illness, and psychiatric disorders are closely linked." "it is likely that the worldwide spikes in depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric diagnoses are at least in part related to the pandemic fundamentally changing the ways in which we relate to our respiratory sensations."
Our respiratory system communicates with the brain through three pathways, the olfactory pathway, the somatosensory pathway, and the interceptive pathway
If you're a mouth breather, an important pathway to the brain is unavailable to you.
This second pathway is activated by the movement of our diaphragm, chest wall, and the rhythmic expansion and contraction and expansion of our lungs as we breathe, Our head, chest, and posture also oscillate with our breathing rhythm. All of these sensations are picked up by the somatosensory nerve and relayed to the primary somatosensory cortex and cerebellum, which synchronize sensorimotor rhythms in these areas with our breath.
The third pathway carries information from the lungs to the brain via the vagus nerve. With regard to breathing, the vagus communicates our internal sensations, such as air hunger, respiratory frequency and respiratory effort to the brain. The vagus nerve culminates in the locus coeruleus, a structure in the brain stem that is the principal site for the brain synthesis and transmission of norepinephrine (noradrenaline). This structure projects to wide subcortical and cortical regions which regulate arousal, attention and stress responses.
The authors of this paper suggest that "our respiratory rhythms modulate the brain in part by controlling norepinephrine (noradrenaline) release, creating a causal loop between internal sensation, respiration, and arousal. This influence probably occurs during each breath cycle and is sensitive to changes in respiratory patterns on a breath-by-breath basis."
The breath as the central regulator of higher cognition
"The emerging consensus view from both animal and human neuroimaging studies places the breath, and its role in modulating neuronal rhythms, as a central regulator of higher-order cognition. Through the olfactory, somatosensory, and interoceptive pathways, respiration can be seen as a global rhythm that regulates how and when we process stimuli arising in the body and the world."
"For example, in a study that investigated respiratory cycle effects across six different task paradigms spanning emotion discrimination, visual memory, sound detection, pitch discrimination, and visual motion discrimination, the researchers showed that across all modalities, participants exhibited a tendency to align their breathing rhythm to the timing of the task, inhaling during stimulus presentation and exhaling when responding."
"In the body, respiration modulates stability, dynamics, and homeostasis. In the brain, the timing and amplitude of respiration appear to exert diverse influences on neural oscillations, functional connectivity, and behaviour. On this basis, the authors propose that respiration may play a particularly important role in aligning the rhythms of the brain with those of the body and the exteroceptive world."
Nasal breathing is important for emotion, memory and learning. Encourage your clients to breathe through the nose.
Our breathing rhythms regulate arousal, attention, and stress responses. Longer, slower breaths are optimal. Yoga, meditation, exercise, and heart rate variability training can help clients learn how to breath in this way.
When you're with a client who is stress and whose breathing is disordered, you can remain calm and start breathing in a slow, rhythmic manner. The client will start to slow down their breathing and become calmer. This is called emotional contagion.
Allen M, Varga S, & Heck DH. (2022). Respiratory rhythms of the predictive mind. Psychol Rev. 2022 Aug 18. doi: 10.1037/rev0000391. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35980689.