Proper Breathing Helps Control Emotions

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

This is a follow up article to the one in which I discussed breathing as a building block to physical and emotional health. In that, I explained the correct breathing the relaxed belly breathing, and incorrect which is chest breathing or tense belly breathing.  

Let us talk about breathing and emotions.  The connection between emotions and breathing generally goes unnoticed, though we "see" it in ourselves and in others every day.

When we are emotional, breathing is on the "automatic pilot."  As we are focused on the object of our emotion, we hardly every consciously register the close relationship between emotions and breathing.  When we are angry, fearful, or anxious, we over-breathe or as one would say in common parlance, we "huff and puff".

In case of sadness, suspense, conflict or depression, we under-breathe, "hold our breath," so to say.  These changes in the breathing are automatic.  Incidentally, there is a chain reaction of other physical changes, such as the release of chemicals, sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous system activity which accompany the changes in the breathing.

Space does not allow me to go into the relationship between emotions and other chemical, glandular, and neurophysiological changes.

Why do I choose to talk about the relationship between emotions and breathing?  Because breathing is a unique bodily function which can be "automatic," that is, it can function on its own, without our deliberate effort to breathe and it can also be a conscious, "self directed," and voluntary activity.

When we bring breathing under our direct and voluntary control, we can use it as a tool to control emotions.  We can easily observe the changes in our breathing when we consciously attempt to do so.  It is difficult, if not impossible to observe and control the chemical and neurophysiological changes that take place inside our body, but, with just a little training and steady awareness, we can easily influence and change our breathing.

Similarly, it is extremely difficult to directly influence the activity of heart, kidney, stomach, intestines, and other organs which are involved in the experiencing of emotions.  Through breathing, we can influence the activity of these internal organs.

While the negative emotions cause over-breathing, under-breathing, and other irregular breathing activity, the positive emotions cause breathing to be deeper, easier, and effortless.  By the same functional relationship, when we restore our breathing to a deep, smooth, and rhythmical pattern, we can reduce the strength of negative emotions and acquire a peaceful and relaxing mental state.

Nature has equipped us with a "fight of flight" emergency response for surviving against the enemy or danger.  It has also provided us with a "calming" response, to restore peace and serenity, equally important for our survival.  You can trigger a calming response whenever you like by pressing the 'button," i.e. your breathing.  Take five or ten deep, smooth, rhythmical breathes.  With each out breath, say the word "calm" or "relax," silently in your head and there you are!  You have triggered a calming response.  It is simple and effective, most of the times.

Other times, if there is a lot of muscular tension or 'heat" generated by the emotions, you may not be physically and mentally ready to go into a calm state unless you move your body a little bit.  That is what the word, "E-motion" conveys.  Emotion puts you in a state of motion, stirred up, excited or agitated.

So, if you find yourself in such a state, it might be good to first move your body a little bit.  Do just a few push ups, jumping in place, or jog lightly to dissipate the tension and to extend the "energy" accumulated.  It would then be more beneficial to do the deep, rhythmical, smooth breathing.

Dr. Normal Vincent Peale tells a story of a man, who in the midst of an argument with his colleagues, walks up to a couch and lies down.  His arguing colleagues, curious of this strange behavior, ask him what he is doing and whether he is suddenly taken ill.  The man tells them that he went to lie down because he was getting angry and it is difficult for him to get angry if he is lying down.

There is a great lesson in this story for all of us.  Take a preventative action!  Don't let ourselves get too stirred up by the emotion.  When an emotion begins to get hold of you, take a mental note ho how you are breathing and right away go back to belly breathing.  You will be in control of the situation and think clearly.  It can prevent you from saying or doing things that you might regret later. 

Return to Self Help 

Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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