- Universal access to simple breathing strategies makes their effectiveness easy to dismiss.
- Anxiety, depression, stress, and chronic pain create interconnected pathways in the brain.
- We can disrupt and rewire distressing brain pathways through slow breathing and focused attention.
Can slow breathing and focused attention change your life? In short—yes! Studies clearly show that intentional breathing strategies can reduce anxiety and depression, manage blood pressure, improve sleep, and change the immune system. What gets in the way is us—it can be hard to believe that a simple breathing strategy can be effective for so many different problems.
In our world of nonstop drug and medical treatment marketing, I sometimes struggle to get my patients to buy into simple, no-cost strategies like breathing to manage their chronic pain and the stress, anxiety, and depression that often come with it.
I always feel like a salesperson when I begin breathing education for my patients; it’s hard not to be excited about how transformative something as simple as slow breathing and focused attention can be in a person’s life. Fortunately, it’s not a sales pitch—it's science.
The Pathways in Your Brain
A common metaphor used in pain neuroscience is to view pain as a result of activated neuropathways in the brain. Think of neuropathways as a map of the brain—one that links many different areas of the brain together. When one small part of the map is triggered, the entire network becomes activated, producing pain. This explains why smells, sounds, memories, and even emotions can sometimes elicit a pain response.
When we are depressed, anxious, and overwhelmed by stress, our entire brain is in an active state of distress. If we stay in this distressed state for any length of time, the connections between our thoughts, emotions, physiology, behavior, memories, and self-concepts all start to become linked.
Unless disrupted, this temporary state converts over time to a chronic level of distress. These unhelpful connections take root, becoming the default mode of how the brain operates. It is from here that our thoughts, emotions, physiology, and behavior generate as we go about our day and influence all our experiences.
Rewiring Your Brain One Breath at a Time
Think of your anxiety or depression as an actual pathway in your brain, similar to an animal trail you might see in the woods. An animal trail has packed down dirt and very little new growth. Constant use—as deer travel from one feeding area to another, for example—make it, quite literally, the path of least resistance.
For an animal path to experience regrowth, the deer need to stop walking on it. In much the same way, for our brains to heal from chronic stress, the well-worn neuropathways that don't serve us need to be abandoned. New, healthy pathways need to be created instead. This is where breathing exercises come in—they help to redraw the map.
Just as anxiety and other forms of stress engage the entire brain, slow, paced breathing can accomplish this “all-in" engagement as well. What's more, combine slow, paced breathing with focused attention and you start to see a change in brainwave patterns that puts the brain into a neutral, calm state. Said another way, we suspend distressing brain pathways from operating when we engage in focused breathing practice. The two cannot exist simultaneously.
Over time, the practice of slow breathing with focused attention does not just put the brain into a calm state—it also begins to disrupt the other default pathways that do not align with neutrality. These are the pathways associated with anxiety, depression, and other states of distress.
How to Improve Your Brain Health
If you are finding this metaphor helpful, try visualizing the distressing “animal trail” pathways slowly filling in with fresh vegetation; with every breath, you are keeping deer off the path. The more you practice slow breathing, the more disruptive pathways are taken off-line. In time, unhelpful connections weaken and then cease to exist.
Getting started is easy.
One simple practice is as follows: Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four, and then out through your mouth for a count of six. Exhale with pursed lips to release the air slowly and evenly. Focus all your attention on the gentle movement of your stomach as you breathe. Avoid practicing when you are distressed or in a pain flare-up so that your breathing exercise does not become linked with your state of distress. And never practice breathing with the intent to control unwanted anxiety—that can easily make things worse, not better.
Begin in a quiet place for five minutes, twice a day, and gradually increase the time you spend practicing each week until you are practicing for 10 minutes twice a day.
You're now on your way to finding out for yourself just how beneficial slow breathing can be in your own life to improve brain health.