Breathing for Mental and Bodily Calm

Meditation, sports psychology, emotional intelligence and relationship counselling all give a central role to breathing for mental and bodily calm. Whether taking deep slow breaths, doing patterned breathing (like 4-7-8 breathing) or simply being aware of the breath, this basic bodily function is a gateway to calm.

This is established practical knowledge in all the fields mentioned above and I use it in mindfulness training, executive coaching, doing therapy, cross-fit and occasional disagreements with Vivian. However, the physiology underlying this effect is only now being investigated in detail.

We’ve known that breathing biases the body towards parasympathetic autonomic states but not how that happens. This NYTimes article (I think this might be pay-walled) refers to a couple of recent articles in the journals Nature and most recently Science (this takes you to the abstract) describing the identification of a bundle of about 3000 molecularly differentiated neurons in the brainstem (reptilian-ish brain) which sense and influence each others’ activity and the body’s breathing state which in turn then influences the body’s arousal state which then influences …..

(Complex, recursive feedback systems seem to be the rule in our physiology.)

It is still early days and the articles describe the actions of only (that’s an ironic “only”, folks) two of the cell varieties and their function but I’m sure we’ll be seeing more detail from these folks over the next year or so.

So we’re beginning to get down to physical causation of this marvellous aspect of our embodied selves.  I always like to have practical experience backed up with as much detail on how things work as possible. There’s the definition of a “user” and a “tech” which says that a user only cares THAT things work where the tech cares HOW they work. I’m a hybrid: happy enough when I have a practice which works but even happier when I know, even in a sketchy way, how it works.

If you’re happy just knowing THAT breathing is a great tool for calming or self-soothing, great! Keep using it in confidence. If you’re like me in having your confidence grow as you increase your picture of HOW it works, keep using it and enjoy the articles. I hope they build your confidence in these natural and powerful practices of breathing for mental and bodily calm.

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