Zen Mice and the Art of Deep Breathing

It’s nice when science confirms common sense.

At some point in your life as a parent, I am sure you have encouraged an agitated, anxious, or angry child to “take a deep breath.” (I detailed one such moment in the post “Take a Deep Breath and Try Again”).

Deep breathing helps us calm down. We know that intuitively and experientially.  But why?

Breathing is a complex process; something our body does regularly and rhythmically, like our heartbeat. But unlike our heartbeat, it’s something we can modulate. It’s both a conscious and unconscious act.

Nearly 25 years ago, scientists discovered 3,000 interlinked neurons in our brainstem that control our breathing. In a newly published study, scientists at Stanford played with these neurons in mice. In one experiment, they disabled neurons related to “rapid breathing and sniffing.”

A recent New York Times article explained what happened next:

Afterward, the animals at first seemed unchanged. They sighed, yawned and otherwise breathed just as before.

But when the mice were placed in unfamiliar cages, which normally would incite jittery exploring and lots of nervous sniffing — a form of rapid breathing — the animals instead sat serenely grooming themselves.

“They were, for mice, remarkably chill,” says Dr. Mark Krasnow, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford who oversaw the research. . . .

It turned out that the particular neurons in question showed direct biological links to a portion of the brain that is known to be involved in arousal. This area sends signals to multiple other parts of the brain that, together, direct us to wake up, be alert and, sometimes, become anxious or frantic.

In other words, rapid breathing puts the brain on alert and starts “ramping up the machinery of worry and panic.” In contrast, “taking deep breaths is calming because it does not activate the neurons that communicate with the brain’s arousal center.”

One of the best things we can do for our kids is to equip them with the “soft skills” they need to thrive – such as empathy, cognitive control, and emotional agility. So go ahead and remind them to take that deep breath when they feel their anxiety rising.  You can tell them they don’t have to take your word for it; there are a bunch of “remarkably chill” mice in a lab at Stanford who can vouch for it, too.

 

photo credit: forum.linvoyage.com Sunset at the sea, somewhere between Thailand and Malaysia XOKA6045s via photopin (license)

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