New research sheds light on calming effects of breathing

Research Findings and Resources

There has long been an understanding that breathing techniques can elicit a calming effect and a state of relaxation. However, we didn’t fully understand why until March 31, 2017. Yackle et al. (2017) researchers at Stanford University have found the physiological and neurological basis of the relationship between breathing and reduction of arousal. In fact, the place in the brain that regulates breathing is a specific grouping of neurons that communicates what happens in our respiratory control center to the part of our brain responsible for generating arousal (Yackle et al., 2017).

This research built off a previous study on sighing where researchers were able to identify the “sigh control circuit” in the brain that integrates physiological and possibly emotional input to transform normal breaths into sighs (Li et al., 2016).  Sighs are long deep breaths that occur spontaneously every few minutes to reinflate alveoli, and can increase with hypoxia, stress and certain psychiatric conditions (Li et al., 2016).

Evidence-Based Relaxation Breathing Exercises

Our bodies desire to maintain homeostasis, which is challenged by internal and external emotional or physical stressors. There are evidence-based breathing techniques that are proven to reduce undesired physical and emotional symptomology (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011).

Autogenic Training

A self-relaxation procedure developed by Johannes Heinrich Schultz teaches the patient a set of directions and exercises that command the body to relax and control breathing. This can help with decreased blood pressure, slowing heartbeat and normalizing body temperature (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011). There are six standard exercises and it can take four to six months to master them. A meta-analysis of autogenic training found efficacy in range of diverse issues including reduction of tension headaches and migraines, hypertension and asthma symptoms, and an improvement in sleep disorders among other benefits (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011).

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Also known as abdominal, belly breathing, this method involves practicing expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest when breathing (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011). The manipulation of breath movements contributes to a physiological response including decreased heart rate and lowering of blood pressure. The practitioner is recommended to practice several times a day. Studies have indicated it is effective in use to decrease fatigue in stem cell transplantation patients, reduction in anxiety and asthma symptoms, management of acute stressful tasks, reduction of hypertension and management of aggressive behavior (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011). 

We have long known that breathing exercises are proven to be useful for a plethora of physiological and emotional issues. Now, we finally know why!

References and Resources

Li, P., Janczewski, W. A., Yackle, K., Kam, K., Pagliardini, S., Krasnow, M. A., & Feldman, J. L. (2016). The peptidergic control circuit for sighing. Nature, 530(7590), 293-297. doi:10.1038/nature16964

Varvogli, L., & Darviri, C. (2011). Stress Management Techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health Science Journal, 5(2), 74-89

Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., Sorokin, J. M., Huguenard, J. R., Feldman, J. L., & ... Krasnow, M. A. (2017). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science (New York, N.Y.), 355(6332), 1411-1415. doi:10.1126/science.aai7984