Contributor: Kaia Roman
Photographer: Taylor Balding
We’ve all heard “just breathe” a million times, but believe it or not, there is actually science behind your mom’s annoying advice. Deep breaths send oxygen to your amygdala, which is like the brain’s alarm clock. When the amygdala is triggered by any stressful situation, it responds with the primal protection reactions of fight, flight, or freeze.
Your amygdala is awesome because it helps keep you safe. And you certainly want to be able to react quickly when you’re in real danger. But unfortunately, the amygdala doesn’t differentiate so well between the stress of being chased by a tiger and the stress of a tight deadline at work. All it knows is that you are threatened. And when the amygdala senses a threat, and reacts with fear, it blocks the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that's responsible for logical thought.
The prefrontal cortex is located behind the forehead and is where all higher reasoning takes place. And you're likely to want higher reasoning in most stressful situations because fight, flight, or freeze usually aren’t enough options. So, how can you get your amygdala to chill out?
That’s where the power of breath comes in handy. Oxygen is the amygdala’s signal that it’s okay to stop sounding the alarm and free up full access to the prefrontal cortex. Deep breaths are the core practice of mindfulness, which is defined simply as bringing awareness to the present moment.
To benefit from the power of breath, try these easy mindfulness breathing techniques:
1. Exhale Counting
This is a basic mindfulness breathing technique that will help you keep your mind from wandering back to stressful thoughts. You can do this just about anywhere and will likely experience the calming benefits after just a few minutes. The goal is to breathe evenly and slowly and count each exhale. Only count up to 5, and then start over. If you find yourself on number 8, 10, or 15, you’ll know your mind has wandered and you can go back to counting exhales only up to number 5.
2. Square Breathing
Imagine you’re drawing a square in the air. While inhaling slowly do a count of 1-2-3-4, imagine the upward line of a square in the air, or you can actually draw it with your index finger. When your inhale is complete, hold your breath to an equal count of 1-2-3-4 while imaging or drawing the top line of the square in the air. Next, exhale slowly to a count of 1-2-3-4 while you imagine or draw the downward line of the square. Lastly, hold your breath for 1-2-3-4 while you complete the square by imagining or drawing the bottom line across in the air. Repeat this cycle several times, either with your eyes open or closed.
3. Belly Breathing
Place one or two hands on your belly while you sit or lie down comfortably. As you breathe in slowly and deeply, imagine the breath filling your belly. Gently push your belly outward while you fill it with air with each inhale, and allow your belly to fall when you empty the air with each exhale. Often we breathe in an opposite way to this: sucking our bellies in when we inhale and pushing our bellies out when we exhale. By imagining our bellies filling with air with each inhale instead, we can maximize the amount of oxygen we’re taking into our lungs.
Breathing is easy, we’re all doing it all the time. But how often do you intentionally take the time to breathe deeply, with mindfulness? Give it a try the next time your heart starts racing and you feel the pressure rising. If you aren't being chased by a tiger or other scary creature—it might just make you feel a whole lot better. Your amygdala will thank you for it.