Unlocking the Subconscious with Breathwork
Breathing is the interface between our conscious and subconscious awareness. This body function is unique because it can be controlled consciously through volition and is also controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is not under our conscious control, like our heartbeat and digestion. The ANS is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is our fight or flight mechanism activated under stressful situations. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is our rest and digest mechanism activated when we are calm and relaxed. The fascinating aspect of the breath is that we have the ability to change this autonomic nervous system function by changing the pattern and rate of our breathing.
Connection Between Breath and Brain Function
There has been a resurgence of interest and research on the benefits of breathwork in the past decade. A recent 2017 study identified a link between breath rate and neuronal activity in the brain (Yackle, Schwarz, & Kam, 2017). They found a group of neurons in the brain they coined the “breathing pacemaker” that can be adjusted depending on our respiratory rate. Calm and slow breathing decreased activity and fast erratic breathing increased activity in this region of the brain. These changes in the “breathing pacemaker” caused changes in the emotional state of mice being observed. This is an important step in understanding the interface between breath and brain function.
Benefits of Breathwork on Emotional Wellbeing
A 2018 study revealed the effects of counted breaths on our emotional wellbeing (Herrero , J., Khuvis, Yeagle, Cerf, & Mehta, 2018). This study used an intracranial electroencephalogram (iEEG) to measure changes in the cortical and limbic regions of the brain in response to controlled breathing. The cortical region of the brain is responsible for memory, thought, awareness, attention, language and consciousness. The limbic region of the brain is responsible for emotion, behaviour, memory and smell. Participants were asked to count their breaths over a 2-minute period. The group that consciously counted their breaths for the 2-minute duration showed increased coherence and organization in these regions of the brain compared to a resting state.
Another interesting finding within this study revealed that the participants who were consciously counting their breaths enhanced cohesiveness in different regions of the brain compared to participants who focussed their attention on the natural automatic breath rate. The participants actively counting their breaths engaged the frontotemporal-insular cortices which is involved in consciousness associated with emotion, empathy, self-awareness, perception and cognitive functioning. The participants who were not counting their breaths, but were witnessing and observing their normal respiration, engaged the cingulate cortex which is part of the limbic system involved in emotional processing, learning and memory.
The research is finally catching up to what people have intuitively experienced for centuries, that our breath can be the key to regulating our emotional, mental and interpersonal wellbeing. This is a very handy tool in our sympathetic driven society, and the best part is that it’s free and always available!
Herrero , J., Khuvis, S., Yeagle, E., Cerf, M., & Mehta, A. (2018). Breathing above the brain stem: volitional control and attentional modulation in humans.. J Neurophysiol, 119(1), 145-159. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28954895
Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., & Sorokin, J. M. (2017). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science, 355(6332), 1411-1415. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1411/tab-figures-data