It’s easy to understand the role breathing plays in cognition and mood. Tape your nose and mouth shut and try to solve a maths problem that would normally take you a couple of minutes, at most. Chances are you will feel anxiety, a rising sense of panic and a deep sensation that unless you rip away the tape and breathe you will suffocate and die.
In this small example we see the complex interplay between perception, cognition and action and breathing and the way these are wrapped up in interoception. Interoception is defined as the sense of the internal state of the body and it is considered to play a vital role in the awareness of the origin of our emotional responses and therefore play a central role in emotional regulation.
If, in our example, blood samples were being taken as you were trying to solve those quick maths problems without taking a breath, there would be evidence of elevated oxidative stress in the body which would directly affect the way it functions. By direct association these oxidative stress markers would also affect the way the brain functions.
Just by cutting off airflow for less than two minutes we were able to immediately affect the way we think and the way we feel. It goes to reason therefore that if the seemingly simple act of breathing in and out can affect the way our cognition works and how our emotions move us, we can leverage it to better control our thinking and feelings when we are under stress.
But just how this mechanism works wasn’t readily available to us, until now. A new study carried out by the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University in Denmark shows that “the act of breathing exerts a substantive, rhythmic influence on perception, emotion, and cognition, largely through the direct modulation of neural oscillations.”
This equips us with a powerful, yet easy to apply, means of modulating emotions such as panic, anxiety and fear and a handy tool to help our cognitive processes remain sharp so that our analytical skills, situational awareness and structured thinking remain intact even when we are faced with adversity.
But how do we apply it? Obviously, it requires a certain amount of self-awareness. If we don’t know when we are stressed, for example, then having the means to control the stress we feel is redundant. Self-regulation becomes a thing only when we apply self-monitoring and self-monitoring is important only if we realize that we need it because none of us have perfect response to external stimuli all the time.
So here’s the plan:
- Monitor how you feel at all times.
- Ask yourself why you feel the way you do.
- Control the way you breathe and monitor its effectiveness on your mood.
- Practise this at all times, learnt to make it second-nature so that you have an immediate means of self-regulation, at hand when needed the most.
The complexities we face each day in the 21st century are not going to become easier any time soon. This means we need to adapt our personal survival playbook to cope better with what the world is throwing at us. If you ever feel the need to meditate and don't know how to start this handy guide provides the perfect guidance you need.
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