Take a Deep Breath: The Physiology of Slow Deep Breathing

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24 Responses

  1. alina says:

    What a great article! Thanks a lot!!
    A lot of useful information. Alina

  2. Jordan says:

    Cool article. I’ve always been interested in permanently improving my subconscious breathing patterns as I feel my natural breathing is very shallow. Interestingly enough I also suffer from anxiety.

    Do you think it is possible to permanently change your subconscious breathing pattern or should I just focus on relaxation through breathing exercises?

    • Thanks for reading!

      The human unconscious basal rate of respiration is entrained by the brainstem so a conscious effort to alter it would likely not be a great use of one’s time. Perhaps, the most benefit would be found just appreciating the primary experience of the practice.

      Thank you again for reading!

      • Joris says:

        Would constant, persistent practice in any way alter the subconscious pattern? I’ve been suffering from anxiety and bad body pains that I am 99% sure have to do with diaphragm and breathing, and would love to change that for the better! Not that I won’t try regardless of the answer.
        Anyways, thank you so much for this great article.

        • Thank you for reading!

          This question seems to be similar to a previous question. As I noted in my previous answer, the human basal respiratory rate tends to be entrained by the brainstem. That being said, physical exercise can theoretically lower basal heart rate as well as other physical parameters. Thanks again for reading!

  3. Melito says:

    Great read. I think that continued practice of slow breathing can “reprogram” a bad habit of shallow breathing.

  4. Elena M. says:

    Thank you for this deep read. Just came across your web and found it really useful. As a meditation and yoga practitioner/researcher this article has helped me to better understand the mechanism of deep breathing.

  5. vivekchandra says:

    Dear Matt heartful thanks , your article is really wonderful and it has touched the sky in area of mindfulness and anxiety disorder. I find your breathing and mindfulness very comforting. But which is better ? To observe breath or take deep mindful breaths or both or some form of mantra . Similarly deep breathing is slightly difficult while standing but supine position it is good . Can I start with exhalation before I take a deep breath or should simply inflate my lungs? Pls clarify. Thank you

    • The practice of mindfulness is a very personal exercise. Whatever feels sustainable and relaxing is likely the right method for you. I’m sorry I don’t have a more definitive answer, but I would suggest that the exercise of trial and error will provide excellent self-education for establishing a practice. Thanks for reading!

  6. vivekchandra says:

    Thank you Matt, indeed trial and error is good in time of paralysis of Logic. Interestingly you have covered both the posts i.e mindfulness of breathing and taking a deep breath. A small doubt regarding exhalation, we say smooth and longer exhalation turns on parasympathetic especially in recoiling mode with minimal utilisation of intercoastals and abdominal muscles. If so does this parasympathetic state help in return of alertness which is probably not available from ordinary eye resting.Does deep breathing also alter brainwave pattern and aid in creativity by generating greater alpha wave coherence? pls try to provide impact of deep diaphragmatic breathing on generation of alpha waves

    • Thank you again for your comments and questions. I would recommend reading the following article for more details regarding the physiology of deep breathing: Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical hypotheses, 67(3), 566-571.

  7. Valkyrie says:

    This was an excellent and thorough article. I thought I would comment, as a few people were interested in whether they might permanently change their subconscious breathing pattern.

    After a decade of experimenting with various forms of meditation, I am aware of the direct relationship between the *intensity* of thought and quality of breathing. I am inclined to believe, through observation, that the content of said thought- positive, negative or otherwise- is immaterial in terms of its effects upon breathing. (Consider the cardio-respiratory similarity between the airplane panic attack and arriving at your surprise birthday party.) Intense thinking appears to lead to a protracted shortening of breath, and the oscillation of this shortened breath around the point of maximum exhalation. In my case, the ‘release’ of intense thought into a breathing-mindful condition yields, with no intervention of consciousness, an immediate powerful inhalation with tangible stretching of the diaphragm, followed by (sometimes) complete cessation of breathing for several seconds at the point of maximum exhalation. Again, without conscious intervention, this somewhat harrowing cycle may be repeated several times before the breath becomes pleasantly soft and mild. The result is a sense of great well-being, sometimes accompanied by euphoric tingling throughout the body. (c.f. the first tetrad of Theravada Buddhism’s anapanasati meditation.) This same effect, however, does not occur if I enter into a state of breathing-mindfulness from a state of low-intensity thinking.

    My reason for elaborating all of this, is to suggest that the ‘subconscious breathing pattern’ may be intimately linked to the intensity of one’s thinking, and so may, for some people, prove advantageous not to set about practicing breathing exercises but to practice moving and consciously between states of intense thinking and states of breathing-mindfulness, and allowing one’s body to perform its own breathing ‘exercises’ which it intuitively ‘practices’ in order to achieve equillibrium.

    Remember, this is just my personal experience and may not apply to everybody!

  8. ROGER PRICE says:

    A very short answer to a very long question is YES. It is possible to retrain the brainstem response to a different breathing pattern. The only reason I am so sure about this is that in most cases, absent those where there are obvious genetic, neurological or neuromuscular issues, we are born as obligate nasal breathers – as this is the design of the mammal. Over a period of time, usually starting in early infancy, we develop dysfunctional breathing patterns – for a number of reasons – poor tongue posture, allergies, high arch, malocclusion etc. and our breathing pattern subtly alters until we become hyperventilating mouth breathing children and adults. Tf the brainstem response can denature as a consequence of repetitive behaviour, it can be renatured through a series of specially crafted exercises – which allow it to return to normal.

  9. John says:

    What about meditation? It can strengthen regions in brain resulting in more relaxation and positivity instead of having anxiety, worry based thoughts. Stress apparently strengths connections with frontal lobe with amygdala, resulting in negative thoughts being served up from the subconscious. Mild fulness meditation in specific reverses this according to a psychologist.

  10. Tom says:

    Thank you for the depth and clarity of this article. Truly terrific writing.

    Regarding breath ratio: you — and most people I know — have emphasized the benefits of a longer exhalation than inhalation. However, I have also heard that an equal ratio of inhalation to exhalation is more beneficial for the limbic system. My minimal research turned up only this abstract https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24380741 which seems to confirm the equal ratio hypothesis. I am somewhat attached to a longer exhalation, but I want to breathe in the most effective way possible for my mental health. Is research that confirms your recommendation?
    With thanks,

    • Matthew says:

      Thanks for reading and so glad you found the article interesting. To your question, the research that I found suggested a prolonged exhalation phase. That being said, the article you cited is equally valid. In reality, it is likely that the exact inhale/exhale ratio is less important than simply slowing down and taking deep breaths.

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