It’s become so difficult to relax, with the frenetic pace of modern life and our dependence on technology. Even when we’re supposed to unwind, most of us turn to our screens unaware of the effect it has on our mental health. A study by Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center has shown that higher screen time is associated with depression, not to mention contributing to insomnia symptoms and shorter sleep duration. Stress also keeps us awake and not getting enough sleep only adds to it. What can we do? Is there a way we can learn to relax and get better sleep? The answer is yes, and it lies in something we do every minute of every day until we cease to exist: breathing. More specifically, deep, conscious and controlled breathing.
Breathing exercises have long been known to reduce stress and induce relaxation. It also slows the heartbeat and stabilizes blood pressure. Yoga practitioners heavily combine controlled breathing exercises with asanas as it makes doing them more effective. They also believe it creates awareness and focus and enables the flow of prana or life energy.
For those who aren’t too familiar with yoga, such beliefs can seem a little out there. But, there are studies that show otherwise. In an experiment published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, patients were given simple tasks to keep them engaged, allowing doctors to observe what happens when people don’t control their breaths and just breathe naturally. The patients were then asked to increase their breathing. It was found that this controlled breathing activated different areas of the brain.
In another experiment by Stanford University School of Medicine, breathing-related nerve cells – more specifically, neurons that pick up excited breathing – in bio-engineered mice were shut down to see how breathing affects brain function. The mice were still able to perform breathing-related functions like sniffing, but they experienced very little stress. The tranquil mice showed no signs of stress when kept in a new environment. Instead, they sat and groomed themselves, unbothered by their new surroundings. What’s more, their breaths were slower – which is associated with relaxation – instead of being faster and more active.
Controlled breathing doesn’t just impact physical and mental states. It also plays a role in emotion which could help us have power over our state of mind and help us respond to stimuli much more effectively. A study by Pierre Philippot of the University of Louvain sought to find out this link between breathing and emotion.
Two groups were given separate tasks. The first group was asked to elicit various emotions by changing their breathing patterns. It was found that each participant used the same breathing patterns for different emotions for e.g. Short breaths for panic and slow breaths for calmness. The second group was asked to follow the same breathing patterns and write down what they felt when doing them. They said that they felt the same feelings as reported by the first group even though they had no knowledge of the first group’s results.
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It’s no secret that a calmer, more relaxed mind can help you sleep better. If your mind is swarming with thoughts, you feel stressed and more awake. One way to induce sleep is to practice relaxation techniques especially deep, controlled breathing. It quiets the mind and calms the central nervous system. Sleep comes more easily as a result.
It’s also no secret that the better you sleep, the healthier you are. Better sleep promotes growth, aids in the repair of tissues, helps maintain weight, improves concentration and lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke. Now that we know deep, controlled breathing can determine our mental and emotional states; we should make it a priority to do the same and find our way to restful sleep and less stress.