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The Power of Breath

For as long as I can remember I've been a shallow breather. Taking half breaths, where the oxygen barely reaches my chest, not passing my sternum, my breath is pushed out of my body with a lack of awareness. My body was starving. I neglected to oxygenate my muscles, bones, heart, and my organs, especially my brain, were suffering. I often had the patience of a dog chasing a squirrel and I was overrun by emotional decision making. My lack of breath had many health consequences specific to anxiety, stress, muscle tension and exhaustion. I was breathing myself sick. I needed to to change my breath and change my mindset to restore my brain and body.

As I began my path of mindful awareness through an eight-week training of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at Insight LA, it became clearer to me that life is not a flat sprint but rather an ultra-marathon through varied terrain. I needed to readjust my pacing to that of a long distance runner, even walking slowly at times, or crawling up a mountain. I needed to learn to breathe, mindfully.

First, I had to identify my breath in my body (first step of awareness - where are you in your body?), tuning into my body. Then I needed to expand the breath in my body (second step - visualize your breath being expanded in your body- deep belly breaths) through my chest, abdomen, and all the way to the base of my spine. Finally, I learned to release the breath (third step - exhale the breath and feel the breath move from the base of your spine all the way to the release through the nostrils) with the same intentionality and identification of the breath moving through my body. Who knew there is so much to breathing?

Neuroscience evidence shows that taking in a deep breath allows our nervous system to calm down, using the Vagus nerve to activate the parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system. The activation of the Vagus nerve through deep breathing releases positive neurohormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin to be released from the brain telling our nervous system to relax, calm down, and feel better. These hormones - known as the soothing hormones - are essential for infant and pair bonding, when we experience feelings of deep love. These positive neurohormones allow our mind to reset from negative emotions and thoughts. They reduce our emotional reactivity by calming the amygdala, our fear center in the brain, and by powering up the prefrontal cortex, the brain region essential for executive functioning and complex decision making. A new study published in Science, reports in the mouse brain, the higher order breathing center, known as the preBötzinger complex, has rhythmic neural pulses for calming and arousal breathing. These breath pacemaker neurons project to the locus coeruleus, a region of the brain responsible for calming, attention and alarming throughout the brain.

Making a conscious decision to slow our breath has major health benefits: reducing anxiety, calming the emotional centers in the brain, and increasing clarity of thought by allowing the prefrontal cortex to engage in executive functioning. So when we decide to stop, take a deep breath, calm down, and think, we are using neuroscience.


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