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Breathing is something we’ve been practising all our lives. It’s an automated behaviour regulated by our clever brain to keep our blood oxygenated and eliminate carbon dioxide.

In addition, our breathing changes, increasing in rate when we run and slowing down when we are sitting quietly in a relaxed state or deeply asleep.

But wait there’s more! Scientists have now unravelled further advantages to our cognition through changing how we breathe.

Shallow vs Deep

When working as a GP one of my most common requests was to ask someone to breathe in deep as I listened to their chest with my stethoscope, to pick up changes of airflow consistent with infection, asthma or fluid in the chest.

Have you noticed how when you’re about to take a deep dive underwater, step onto a stage to deliver a presentation or meet someone to have that difficult conversation, you consciously or subconsciously breathe deep to carry you into that moment?

Or that rapid shallow breathing that we associate with a state of panic or fear? This is part of the fight, flight or freeze response that kicks into action when the brain determines you are in a place of potential danger.

Scientists have now looked into understanding what effect this type of breathing has on our ability to think, in particular, to recall memory and process emotion such as fear.

It turns out that your rhythm of breathing i.e. whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth and either inhaling or exhaling affects your emotional judgment and memory recall.

Breathing in stimulates cerebral activity in the olfactory cortex (concerned with smell), amygdala (emotions) and hippocampus (learning and memory).

When we feel afraid, breathing faster and inhaling through the nose enhances your ability to interpret the facial expression of fear in others and increase memory recall. Which could be useful if your friends have noticed there’s a tiger in the bushes before you have and it would be helpful to remember the best escape route to take.

So next time you feel your heart racing and your breathing fast and shallow because you’re feeling anxious or afraid, remember this is the way your brain helps you to stay safe in a perilous situation.

It’s normal and you can also take control.

Mindful breathing

On average we take about 15 breaths per minute.

One strategy I’ve found very useful to teach is mindful breathing. This helps in those situations where you can feel the tension in your body increases and your mind racing, to deliberately slow down your breathing to about 6 breaths per minute.

This has the effect of increasing what is known as your vagal tone, activating the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system that works to dampen down your heart rate, respiratory rate and digestion.

Observing the breath

If you’ve ever practised meditation, you may have learned to focus on your breath. It is a simple and effective way of anchoring your attention and helps to quieten some of our noisy mind chatter.

I’ve been practising meditation for about 15 years. My husband doesn’t. He never has. It doesn’t interest him, though he has asked why I do it.

My reply is something along the lines of “I find it calming. It grounds me. I find it helps to clarify my thoughts.”

Of course, everyone’s experience and the reason for undertaking meditation may be different and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. What counts is knowing what you find helpful as an individual to manage your thoughts and stress levels.

Experience vs. Behaviour

Richard Davidson Founder of the Centre for Healthy Minds and mindfulness researcher believes that developing awareness of our experiences and the associated emotional responses are what leads to changes in our biology and our behaviour.

“We’re finding that emotions and thoughts can alter neural pathways in the brain in relatively short amounts of time and even affect processes like gene expression and aging.”

In other words how we interpret our experiences and inner thoughts influences our physical and mental health. This is where mindfulness and other forms of meditation can be used as interventions to develop this greater self-awareness

So next time you’re feeling like a spinning top about to topple over, remember to give yourself that good advice to “just breathe slowly” and regain the clarity of thought needed to determine what needs to be done next.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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