how deep breathing changes our neural chemistry and physiology.
"Take a deep breath." We've all heard this before; maybe some of us more than others. We also know that, for some reason, taking that deep breath actually does make us feel better--mentally and physically. But why? Well, to answer this, we have to get a bit technical, and dive into the structure and function of the human brain.
The brain is made up of many different structures, but the structures we will be focusing on for the purpose of this are all contained in what is commonly called the limbic system. If we have dealt with any kind of stress whatsoever in life, even if just a low-grade, chronic, "easy-to-ignore" type of stress, we have experienced the limbic system in action...even if we didn't know it. The amygdala, commonly called our "emotion center," is the part of our limbic system within the brain that controls our emotional responses. The amygdala is a big player in the fight or flight response, and ultimately, in the secretion of the big, bad CORTISOL hormone. Now, the amygdala has an opposite: the prefrontal cortex, commonly called the "thinking center." And, as its name implies, the prefrontal cortex does, in fact, control our ability to think, reason, and logically assess a situation. Here's the catch: both the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex cannot be active at the same time. Or, put another way, one or the other is always in charge.
Now, experiencing amygdala-driven emotions is not a bad thing. Our amygdala in general is not a bad guy. It doesn't just serves to make our lives miserable and our minds a mess. As I said earlier, the amygdala is the part of our brain that initiates the fight or flight response--the life-saving, God-given mechanism within us that dilates our pupils, increases blood flow to our muscles and limbs, expands our respiratory structures, and fires up our blood pressure to prepare us to, well, flee or fight. When literal, physical danger is present, this response is much needed. However, there's another catch: the amygdala can't tell the different between literal danger and perceived danger. And by perceived danger, I mean anything you, as an individual person, feel threatened by, fearful of, or unsafe around. This can be anything: Unkind people. Judgy relatives. Doctors. Dogs. Airplanes. Pain. Test-taking. Public speaking. Literally anything: we are all wired differently, and fearfully, wonderfully, DIFFERENTLY made by God, so our "fears" will look differently depending on the way God made us (and the way the devil has played and messed with us).
Whether we have experienced (or regularly experience) acute traumas/stressors, whether physical or emotional, or simply have what I like to call the "subtle stress syndrome," our amygdala is, most likely, acting as the master of our minds--a position it doesn't do well in (it's a good servant, bad master, much like many things in life!). Having the amygdala as commander-in-chief can result in things such as regular digestive discomfort or distress (indicative that our nervous system is stuck in sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, mode, instead of rest-and-digest, parasympathetic mode), racing or irrational thoughts ("What if...?"), even shallow breathing. And before you get flustered with the realization that your amygdala is, in fact, acting as commander of your mind, take a second and re-read the previous sentence, concentrating on the last of the indicative symptoms I've listed. Yep, you guessed it. The way to calm your amygdala, putting it back in its rightful p lace of servant in the limbic system lineup, is to B R E A T H E.
As I said above, either the amygdala OR the prefrontal cortex is acting as master in the mind at any given time. This is partly due to the fact that this was God's intended design of our brains, so that, when we need to fight or flee, we wouldn't be analytical about it, but also partly because the prefrontal cortex is extremely sensitive to any and all stressors. It literally (okay, not literally) freezes and shrivels up when faced with a stressful situation. In fact, researchers have actually found instances where individuals who were under immense physical, psychological, or emotional stress for long periods of time actually had smaller prefrontal cortexes than individuals their same age, gender, etc. who were NOT exposed to the stress (so maybe my use of literally was warranted? Maybe?). In light of this, there IS a way to reactivate the prefrontal cortex and, overtime, strengthen it, making it more able to withstand stressors when they do come, and more likely to stay in the position of mental master in the times when we most need it to. Oxygen activates the prefrontal cortex, which is often why you'll notice you're breathing more shallowly when you feel "stressed" (the amygdala knows to weaken respirations in order to stay in control...I'm forever amazed by the detail and wisdom God made our bodies with!). So, naturally, the solution is to breathe.
You may start out by simply taking four long, deep breaths at regular intervals throughout the day, as well as when you actually feel yourself becoming anxious, stressed, or notice your thoughts beginning to become irrational or "cycling." Gradually over time, increase the time you spend in conscious breathing. Try five minutes in the morning. Then five minutes both morning and evening. Then double it: ten minutes morning and five minutes evening, you get the idea. This is not a quick-fix, and it won't become a habit overnight. But, with dedicated, diligent practice and reliance on the Holy Spirit, you will see a marked difference in your emotional reactivity, mental health and wellbeing, and even physiological symptoms (the brain controls the body, after all). For even more benefit, try engaging in what I like to call "breath prayer." Some people call these "daily mantras" when repeated throughout the day in a fluid manner, or meditation when performed statically, in repetition, while others call this contemplative prayer. Whatever we choose to call this practice, these are or short, impactful sayings (or prayers) we choose at the beginning of each day that empower and encourage us to keep going. For me personally, I prefer calling this practice "breath prayer," since as a disciple of Jesus, my goal is to make my life a living prayer, spent in constant communion with my Heavenly Father. For example, inhale while silently reciting "God is with me," then exhale while silently reciting "I am safe." Below is a downloadable PDF of a few of my favorite breath prayers, but get creative and try coming up with your own for this practice to truly become a sacred haven of peace during your day.
Breath Prayer PDF Document