We breathe. The involuntary act of breathing is how we move air into and out of our lungs thousands of times each day. The air we breathe in (inhale) brings oxygen to our bodies, and the breath going out (exhale) gets rid of carbon dioxide that our bodies don’t need.
We don’t need to remember to breathe. That is because our brainstems—the part of the brain that controls involuntary body functions like breathing—have neurons (cells that send and receive signals) that automate the rhythms of our breathing, according to our bodies’ needs and physical state (asleep, alert, calm, stressed, excited).
We don’t usually pay any attention to our own breathing, but if you want to blow a bubble, or swim, or sing, or even read a long sentence out loud, you are able to control when and how you breath. Sometimes, you might tell yourself or be instructed by someone else to “take a deep breath” to relax or as a way to calm yourself. Why does this work?
Let’s first learn what happens when we are not calm. When we are excited, angry, or afraid our breathing speeds up and becomes shallow, as a part of the normal stress response. The stress response is sometimes called the “fight, flight, or freeze” response because in response to a threat, your body arouses itself to defend itself (fight), run away (flight), or hide (freeze). This is also typical of an anxiety response, when there may not be a physical threat, your brain perceives the anxiety as fear and prepares for danger.
When we are feeling rested and calm—or asleep—our breathing slows down and becomes deeper. When we use our thinking brain to tell ourselves to take a deep breath, the neuronal signals from the brainstem indicate that the body is calm. The brain sees that there is no need for the stress response. The slower, deeper, calming breaths tell the brain that the mind and body can also remain calm.1
What happens when you focus on your breath? Neuronal activity (brain signaling) in the areas of the brain that are important for regulating emotions and for focusing attention are stimulated.2 Stimulating these areas of the brain can help you feel calmer, more attentive and focused, and more aware of your body’s natural signals.
When you are trying to take good care of yourself or others, a focused, attentive, aware state of mind can really help to determine what your body needs. For example, when you are feeling worried or uncertain, taking a breath to allow your body to tell you what it needs—maybe sleep, rest, movement, nourishment, connection, or just a few minutes to yourself—can help you from going down the pathway of having a stress response. Instead, the stillness and space of focusing on your breath allows us for some recovery, or a therapeutic break. Practicing this regularly can help to feel less anxious and overwhelmed with what is going on in our lives.