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Do you ever find yourself holding your breath when undertaking a tricky task like threading a needle, applying your mascara or repairing your aunt’s favourite vase with superglue?

We sigh with relief when the tension is broken. Phew, thank goodness that’s done and then we carry on as normal.

Breathing is as natural as… well, breathing. It’s a process that takes place at a subconscious level though we can override our breathing pattern consciously if we so choose such as when we take a deep breath before jumping into a swimming pool or when rising to speak in front of an audience.

Our breathing pattern is also influenced by our emotional state such as when we are stressed when you might notice your breathing pattern becomes shallow and more rapid.

This is fine when it happens occasionally, but what if you’re chronically stressed and what effect does how you breathe have on your cognition?

If you’re used to focusing hard or are working under continuous pressure it’s not unusual to develop some unhelpful breathing patterns at a subconscious level including shallow breathing or holding your breath.

Why this matters is because breath holding and shallow breathing have been shown to reduce our ability to focus.

Meditation and controlled breathing exercises such as pranayama have long been practised as a way to enhance focus, reduce mind wandering, elevate mood, increase levels of alertness and to stabilise emotions.

Deliberately slowing down the breath influences what is known as your vagal tone, down-regulating the sympathetic nervous system that is part of the fight-flight or freeze response to stress and up-regulating the parasympathetic to enable you to lower your heart rate and blood pressure and relax.

The connection between breathing and cognition has recently been shown by researchers from Trinity College Dublin to be associated with an increase in levels of noradrenaline, the chemical messenger or neurotransmitter released when we are curious or challenged such as when we are in a classroom or other learning environment. The mere presence of a teacher standing by your shoulder boosts your attention keeping you alert and hopefully ready to learn.  

Optimising attention is a question of balance

Like most things, it’s a question of balance. Feeling stressed with high levels of noradrenaline floating around can make it harder to focus. Too little and we feel sluggish and apathetic.

This new research supports the idea that regulating your breathing makes it possible to optimise your brain’s focus and function. Breathing in stimulates the locus coeruleus in the brain stem to produce a little more noradrenaline. Breathing out, a little less, which is why when stressed taking several slow breaths focusing on the out breath helps to reduce tension.

While previous studies have shown meditation reduces stress and drives neuroplasticity this is the first time a physiological explanation has been discovered.

Whether you opt for mindfulness meditation or yoga or not, it is the regular practice of controlled breathing that can provide you with the cognitive advantage of better attention and overall brain health.

That’s smarter thinking by design.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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