Breathing for happinessHealth | 10/11/2023
Knowing how to breathe correctly can help us work through a range of emotions, including stress and anxiety. Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. says “Breathing is one of the most effective and quickest ways to really change the response of your nervous system. We are seeing this result in more and more studies. It’s a powerful tool we all have to regulate emotion, deal with stress, even with severe trauma. Breathing can help you show up as the best version of yourself.” It’s a big promise for such a simple process: air flowing in and out of your lungs. But how exactly does all this work? We asked Seppälä to walk us through the science of breathing – and how to utilize it in our daily lives.
Breathing through emotions
To understand why breathing is such a powerful tool, it’s important to understand how emotion and breathing are interconnected. A study in 20101 found that different emotions have a distinct pattern of breath. Angry breathing is fast and shallow, relaxed breathing is slow and deep, for instance. This study also found that the pathway between emotion and breathing is a two-way street. Just as emotions change breathing, particular patterns of breathing will produce particular feelings. “The simplest version of this is just lengthening your exhale,” Seppälä confirms. “Because our heart rate and blood pressure naturally increase when we inhale, and decrease when we exhale, just consciously exhaling longer will bring your pulse down and lower your body’s stress response.”
Calm breathing will activate your parasympathetic nervous system – the part of your body that is responsible for the so-called "rest-and-digest" responses. In contrast, when we’re under stress, our bodies are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, inducing a “fight-or-flight” mode. “When you’re in this stimulated fight-or-flight response, you quickly lose access to your prefrontal cortex, which guides higher cognition and behavior,” Seppälä says.
The best way to get back on the happiness track is simply to breathe and relax. “Calm breathing can take you right back into the parasympathetic nervous system, to rest-and-digest,” Seppälä says. “It’s actually quite amazing that we have this tool to hand that lets us consciously impact the autonomic nervous system: we just need to be aware of it and use it. People have much more say over their feelings than they think,” Seppälä says.
Relief for anxiety, stress and trauma
We are likely to experience stress, anxiety or trauma at some point in our lives. This can be caused by a range of different triggers, from a stressful project at work to a traumatic event such as a car accident. As we navigate the post-pandemic era, many people will be experiencing residual stress and anxiety, and some may even have trauma. Seppälä notes “I think most of us are walking around with some sort of trauma - we’ve really been taught over the past few years to be hypervigilant, to constantly scan for danger. It would be good to counterbalance that with exercises that train your brain to relax.”
After joining Yale University in 2001, Seppälä conducted a study looking at effective wellbeing interventions for undergraduates. Her team looked at the beneficial impact of three classic wellbeing interventions: the SKY breath meditation, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. Results showed that breathing had a larger impact on wellbeing than classic cognitive or mindfulness interventions. Seppälä commented “We try to solve our problems with thinking. But in an agitated fight-or-flight state, thinking isn’t necessarily all that helpful. With conscious breathing, you can train your own nervous system to calm down, which will actually help you think more clearly.”
Breathing is something we do naturally from the day we are born, so anyone can use breathing to help them relieve stress & anxiety.
Please find simple breathing exercises suitable for people living with asthma and COPD in our previous article. In the short animation below, you will find a breathing exercise which has been studied to have positive effects in healthy people. If you have asthma or COPD, we advise you to talk with your healthcare professional before starting the alternate nostril breathing exercise because this breathing pattern may be difficult. If you start feeling adverse effects like dizziness or shortness of breath, you should stop the practice.
- Philippot et al. Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition & Emotion 2010;16:605-627. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2002-15484-002
Date of preparation: November 2023 / EASYH-3549
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