If you're stressed or traumatized, if you have to do something frightening or difficult, if you're having trouble concentrating, or if you just can't fall asleep, what's the best thing to do? Amazingly, one simple technique works in all these situations: Controlling your breathing. If you've practiced yoga, you're already familiar with breath control exercises and how using your breathing to move through the poses makes yoga more effective.
Controlling your breath can also help you lower your blood pressure and fall asleep, calm yourself and focus your mind, and help you prepare for a challenging or frightening task. Some Navy SEALs even use it before going into battle. No wonder we so commonly tell each other to "take a deep breath" when dealing with a difficult situation.
Since controlling and slowing your breathing has a measurable effect on your mental state, it seems pretty likely that it in some way affects brain function. But how, exactly? Scientists have been working on that question, and now they have some pretty clear answers. In an experiment at Stanford, scientists selectively shut down breathing-related neurons in the brains of bio-engineered mice. They found the mice still exhibited all forms of mouse breathing (sighing, sniffing, yawning, etc.) but were less likely to sniff and more likely to breathe slowly than normal mice. At the same time, they were the least stressed, most laid-back mice ever. If you set them down in a new environment, where the usual mouse response would be to run around and explore, the mice with the shutdown neurons would simply sit still and relax, grooming themselves.
Now, in a new experiment, scientists examined the brain activity of people with electrodes directly implanted in their brains. The subjects in the experiment were epileptics who couldn't control their illness with medication and were planning to address it with surgery. As part of the preparation, they had to have the electrodes monitoring their brains for a few days so doctors could observe exactly which parts of their brains were activated during a seizure, so as to know which part of the brain to isolate.
Researchers took advantage of this highly unusual situation by first observing the patients' normal, uncontrolled breathing (they gave them unrelated tasks to focus their attention elsewhere), then instructing them to either speed up or slow down their breaths. With the electrodes in place, they were able to observe that intentionally breathing more quickly or more slowly activated different sections of the subjects' brains.
In fact, breathing intentionally my be the key ingredient here. It appears that simply by focusing on controlling our breathing we may gain access to regions of the brain we normally can't activate. Further research is needed to better understand precisely how slower or faster breathing specifically changes brain function to make us calmer, or more anxious, or sleepier, or more alert. But for now, the takeaway is this: When you use breathing exercises to relax or calm yourself, or to deal with a difficult time, you're using a very, very powerful tool that will actually affect the workings of your brain.