What's the first thing that people tell you to do whenever you're upset or anxious? Take a deep breath.
We know that slow, deep breaths can help us calm down. Pranayama, or yoga breathing, is a practice that has been around since at least the fifth or sixth centuries B.C. It focuses on using breathing techniques to calm and center the mind. The Sanskrit word pranayama translates to (prana,) "vital force" and (ayama) "to extend or draw out." So for thousands of years, humans have known that by controlling our breathing, we can control our moods.
New findings from researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine may shed light on why it works.
The research team, led by biochemistry professor Mark Krasnow, looked at the neurons in the brains of mice. They found that of the 3,000 neurons that control breathing — also known as our breathing pacemaker — roughly 175 of those neurons also appear to control the part of the brain that regulates attention, arousal and panic. This would explain why we hyperventilate when we are anxious and why deep, controlled breathing helps us calm down.
For the study, which was published in the journal Science, researchers isolated the 175 neurons that they suspected acted as communications highways between breathing and arousal and then "turned them off" to get a better idea of their precise function. Researchers theorized that without these neurons, the breathing of the mice might be affected such that they would cough or sputter. But that's not what happened. In fact, the breathing patterns of the mice initially appeared unchanged.
The team originally thought that they had been off base with their theory. But after a few more tests, they noticed something odd about the mice. Unlike the control mice who spent the majority of their time in the test chamber exploring and sniffing, the mice in this experiment appeared more calm, spending most of their time grooming themselves and relaxing. They also breathed more slowly than they did prior to the experiment.
Of course, these are mice. So it's unclear whether or not similar communication highways exist in the neurons of human brains. Also, it's up for debate as to whether or not the mice were actually more relaxed after the neurons were turned off or if this was just a subjective assumption on the part of the research team. It's hard to know for sure since the mice aren't talking.
Still, this is a good start for researchers hoping to better understand the connection between breathing and arousal. If a similar pathway does exist in humans, medication that targets these neurons might help to control anxiety when the system goes into overdrive.
For now, the research just confirms what humans have known for thousands of years. If you're stressed out, take a deep breath. And let those neurons in the brain work their magic.