The Science of Mindful Breathing
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
They call it the breath of life. I prefer to think of it as a clock. Your body is a fully integrated system. Every process works in unison with all others, so that when one cog in the machine is out of balance, it grinds against another until it breaks.
The same is true for positive situations. When you breathe, you are supplying a particular volume of gases to the brain. It is such an important organ that it uses up to 20% of the total oxygen taken in by the lungs. If your breath is erratic or interrupted, then our brains cannot function optimally.
A second reason for paying attention to breathing is that it helps to synchronise brainwaves to the electrical output of your heart.
Let’s take a moment to break that statement down.
We have a direct linkage between lung rhythms, heart rate and brainwaves. It seems unlikely, but it’s true. A typical stress reaction begins with a thought. Perhaps you are in an unfamiliar situation, lost in a new city or your boss has picked on you to do an impromptu presentation to the board of directors. That thought triggers an entire cascade of biological processes that can take you from a clear-headed, intelligent and articulate human being to a gibbering wreck.
The first thing that happens is that your mind gathers together all the times you have failed, all the negative feelings that it generated and combines it with every conceivable way that the situation could go wrong. This bombardment of input from several different cerebral regions results in highly erratic brain wave patterns. This stressful state initiates the biochemical pathways in your body to prepare for the evolutionary fight-flight responses, and all within a millisecond or two.
Most people have heard of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, although there are other lesser-known chemicals also at work which can alter the body on a metabolic level. Cortisol prepares us for action. It’s a natural steroid and we all know how that can boost performance, or the artificial stuff would not be banned in sports.
Cortisol is produced from cholesterol in the adrenal glands near to the kidneys and is critical in maintaining a healthy biochemical balance. For example, it can select which type of energy source to mobilise in times of need, whether it’s using up the glucose from a snack or breaking down the protein from muscles in starvation conditions.
It works in tandem with a partner hormone, epinephrine to temporarily increase energy production at the expense of other processes such as the immune system. Nature designed this extreme measure for emergencies like escaping a predator. It was not meant for daily chronic stressors like board meetings or road rage.
Cortisol also narrows the arteries while its partner, epinephrine increases the heart rate. Together they force blood to pump harder and faster. To add to this split-second survival response, cortisol shuts down other non-urgent body processes as well as the immune system, such as digestion, nutrient absorption, and fertility mechanisms from ovulation to erections.
It stands to reason, therefore, that when most other systems are suppressed, the symptoms are extremely uncomfortable; pounding heart, sweating, dry mouth, brain fog, and everything associated with a panic attack.
When your brain is in meltdown, and anxiety or stress has your neurons firing all over the place, the control of your breath is the one part of your physical system that you can consciously override.
It’s the reset button on your scrambled hard-drive. Conscious breathing restores your factory settings.
If you think about it, all other parts of the biological cascade into panic are part of your autonomic nervous system. You can’t suddenly decide, ‘I know, I’ll just tell my adrenal glands to stop releasing cortisol. That’ll calm me down.’ Similarly, you can’t tell your heart to behave itself when you get tongue-tied talking to the person you fancy at the bar.
Your breath is the only part that can function both with and without your conscious control. It stands to reason that by manipulating lung volume and steady rhythms, it will slow the heart to match the intake of gases. This lowered heart rate sends a steady electrical signal across the body to which the brain can harmonise.
Once your physiology is back under control, the symptoms of disharmony; dizziness, sweating, dry mouth, nausea, palpitations etcetera, ease. Some people call it ‘hacking your biorhythms’, but anything that starts with that word puts me off.
Rather than assuming that breathwork is something reserved for eastern philosophies and organised religions, it is an inbuilt part of our biology. A process for everyday people in everyday situations to help them to cope with our complex daily lives. No faith is required, just an understanding of the principles at work.
By maintaining an even, rhythmic breathing, the heart responds by following the pattern laid down by your lung intake. The heart carries an electrical signature 50,000 times stronger than that of our brain. Its ticking clock becomes the pacemaker for discordant frequencies in your grey matter to synchronise to, allowing for all the regions of the brain to resonate coherently.
The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, rather than taking a few deep breaths of unequal length, breathe in for a certain number of seconds as smoothly as possible and then exhale for the exact same time. By focusing your attention on your chest, you distract the emotional reactions which set your biochemistry off into full crisis mode.
Breathing is not just a mechanism to deliver oxygen to our tissues for metabolism. It regulates your most fundamental body clock. When everything is ticking in perfect harmony, overall health will steadily improve.
If you are feeling stressed right now and need a few minutes to clear your mind, why not listen to the short session recorded at the bottom of this post?