Breath and Emotion

“Just take a deep breath!” 

How often have we heard this phrase or told someone close to us to “just breathe” in a stressful, painful or overwhelming situation to help them feel better? We use expressions like “that’s a breath of fresh air!” to describe something new and exciting. We draw from the easeful quality of breath for emphasis when we describe a “sigh of relief” or when warning someone to “save their breath.” 

It turns out breathing is intricately linked to the emotional centers of our brain. It helps us smell and gather information about our environment and form memories. We use our breath to communicate through voice or express our self through song, two functions that are highly dependent on the core muscles mentioned in the previous article. The way we breathe connects us to the people around us. We notice when someone is agitated or anxious. Their voice changes. Their breath becomes rapid and shallow. Perhaps you can recall observing someone sitting on the couch, relaxed and reading a book, breathing slowly and deeply. A deep sigh coming from a spouse or family member, on the other hand, can communicate a whole bundle of emotion! 

Breathing consciously

Our emotional and mental states clearly influence our breathing patterns. Studies have shown that our thoughts can directly change our breath pattern and subsequently affect our physiology and disease processes. In fact, simply becoming aware of our breath has been shown to have a direct influence on anxiety, pain, and regulating our emotions. On the flip-side, we can learn to manipulate our breath consciously and use it as a tool to change our thoughts and emotions. When we slow down and deepen our breath, our whole body becomes relaxed. This may help us sit with and let go of difficult thoughts or emotions. The next few articles will discuss these concepts in more detail. 

We can store psycho-emotional pain or traumas in the form of physical tension or pain in the body. 

Take Mary for example: She was in a car accident while crossing an intersection close to her home and injured her neck. A year later her injury has completely healed and she’s gotten back to all of her activities. Yet every time she drives past that same intersection she feels neck pain, as if she had just injured it! The pain disappears shortly after. How can this be? 

Pain is an output of the brain, just like hunger or thirst. When we feel hungry, our brain is communicating to us that we should eat because our energy is low. When we feel pain, our brain is trying to protect us or warn us about something. The pain that Mary felt when she initially hurt her neck, was likely related to the injured tissues communicating to her brain that there’s a problem. Her brain produced pain to keep her from overloading her neck while it healed. 

However, pain can also occur in the absence of tissue injury. This may help explain Mary’s pain a whole year later. The brain learns from past experiences and may be simply trying to protect her from future injury. It has associated this particular intersection with “danger”. Perhaps there is an underlying emotion such as fear influencing her pain response every time she crosses that intersection. It is very likely that her breathing changes along with this! 

Here’s where things get interesting.

The breath can be a window into noticing the links between our body, our emotions and our thoughts. We can learn to use our breath to rewire these learned patterns and convince our brain that we are actually safe and do not require the alert! 

To learn more about how we can use breath to influence our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, stay tuned for our next few articles! 

Intro : Dare to Breathe
1. The Diaphragm: Life and Breath
2. Breath: Supply and Demand
3. Breathing and Joint Mobility
4. The Diaphragm: A Web of Connection

5. Breath and Emotion 
6. How Stress Can Change Our Breath 
7. Breath Awareness: a Powerful Tool to Bridge the Body and Mind
8. Breath Regulation: Empower Yourself!
9. Mindfulness and Meditation: the Power of Awareness
10. Yoga: Transforming the Body and Mind

Prosko, S. (2019). Breathing and Pranayama in Pain Care. In: Pearson N, Prosko S, Sullivan M (Eds). Yoga and Science in Pain Care: Treating the Person in Pain. London, Uk: Singing Dragon Publishers; pp. 140-156.