By Molly Campbell, University of Leeds, @mollyrcampbell
Take deep breaths. Try to relax. Stay calm. In stressful situations, this is the advice we often receive. More often than not, this tends to work.
What you might not be aware of is that this advice is thousands of years old, and is also supported by extensive scientific research. You’ve heard of the Buddha, right? At the core of the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, meaning focusing on the present moment, is placing attention and focus on the breath. This has beneficial effects on our nervous system and subsequently our health.
Picture this. You are revising a particularly hard topic, perhaps a subject that you desperately need to ace to secure your college or university place. A train of thoughts frantically rushes through your brain and you panic. I’m not going to get the grade I want! I’m not going to get my college place and this will ruin everything for me! Sound familiar?
In these situations, our ‘fight or flight response’ (the sympathetic nervous system) can go into overdrive. Our heart rate increases, as does our blood pressure. This stress response actually limits the function of some of our vital organs – most notably the digestive system. It also limits our cognitive abilities, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand. So where does breathing come into the equation?
The breath is interesting because we can control it despite it being a function of the autonomic (or subconscious) nervous system. Pranayama, or ‘yogic breathing’ involves manipulating and deepening the breath; by doing so we cultivate awareness and consciousness that actually allows us to take the reins and stimulate our ‘rest and digest’ response (the parasympathetic nervous system), inducing relaxation.
How does this work? The vagus nerve, coined the ‘mind-body’ connection, is the longest nerve in the body. To avoid delving too deep into its anatomical route, let’s just say it innervates many organs and regulates many important functions. In the early 1900s, the German physiologist Otto Loewi found that simulating the vagus nerve reduces heart rate by releasing a substance that he called ‘Vagusstoff’. We now know that ‘Vagusstoff’ is actually the chemical acetylcholine that affects brain activity.
When we breathe deeply using our diaphragm, we create pressure in our abdomen that stimulates the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine. Acetylcholine slows down the heart and increases the activity of the digestive system.
Stimulating our ‘rest and digest’ response also inhibits our ‘fight or flight response’. One effect of this is decreasing the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. This then reduces the action of adrenaline in the brain. This is another mechanism behind the physiological workings of breathing for relaxation.
In March of this year, scientists in Italy measured the physiological and psychological responses of students who performed deep breathing (Perciavalle et al., 2017). Considering that the 38 volunteers were university students, the findings are particularly relevant to exam stress. Half of the 38 volunteers did deep breathing exercises once a week for 10 weeks.
The exercises included paying attention to how one breath differs from another, and contracting and releasing the muscles. After 10 weeks, students had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower heart rates.
In focusing on deepening the breath, we calm the nervous system and prevent our body going into ‘fight or flight’ overdrive. This sense of calm and clarity can help bring our attention to the present moment. Our anxiety about exams is regarding the future (What will happen if I fail?) or based on a mistake we made in the past. Using the breath to be present and aware allows us to focus on the now, on the task at hand. So, in times of stress – just take a breath!
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Bordoni, B and Zanier, E. 2013. Anatomic connections of the diaphragm: influence of respiration on the body system. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare. 6(281-289)
McCoy, A. and Tan, Y. 2014. Otto Loewi (1873-1961): Dreamer and Nobel Laureate. Singapore Medicine Journal. 55(1), pp. 3-4.
Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F. and Coco, M. 2017. The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences. 38(3), pp.451-458.