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The positive impact of breathing on memory and emotions

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“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.

Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, meditation teacher, & author

Do you find yourself taking a deep breath before tackling a difficult task?  You’re not alone, we all do it. Scientific studies have suggested that the way we breathe can have a positive impact on our performance.

Breathing and Our Brain

Northwestern Medicine scientists found that the electrical activity created by the rhythm of breathing in the brain enhances emotional judgment and memory. Also, inhalation and exhalation were found to affect brain activity differently.

The respiration rhythm dictates some of the electrical activity in our brain that is believed to reflect communication between different brain regions involved in memory, emotion, attention, and body awareness. Therefore, it can also affect our performance.

Scientists believe that breathing in through the nose as opposed to the mouth has positive effects on the brain. Additionally, inhalation affects the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and threatening stimuli, and the hippocampus, which has an important role in learning and memory. Exhalation doesn’t have as strong an effect as inhalation does.

Benefits of Controlled Breathing

For centuries, humans have practiced controlled breathing for its positive effects on their bodies and state of mind. Paced breath activates the brain regions that control emotions and memory, among others.

So, what is paced breathing? Paced breathing involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling following a set rhythm. This type of breathing taps into neural networks, thus gaining the ability to regulate our response to stress. For example, quick breathing makes us more attuned to fear. However, if we slow down our breath, we can reduce fear and anxiety.

Also, breathing affects the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Norepinephrine increases alertness, arousal, and attention, and affects mood, memory, and sleep. As you inhale, the activity in the brain rises and produces norepinephrine. As you exhale, the activity slows down. Therefore, taking slow deep breaths helps your ability to focus and increase your productivity.

Helpful Breathing Techniques

Practice the following breathing exercises to lower your heart rate and relax, create internal balance, and relieve stress. Remember to sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, in a quiet environment without interruptions.

Mindful Breathing

Close your eyes and focus on the rise and fall of your chest as you inhale and exhale. Focus on one part of the body at a time (arms, shoulders, etc.). Tense that part for three seconds and relax. Repeat it until you feel that tension is reduced.

4-7-8 Exercise

Empty the air in your lungs through your mouth. Close your mouth and count to four while you inhale. Hold your breath and count to seven. Slowly exhale through your mouth to a count of eight. Now repeat this cycle four times in total.

Breath Counting

Take a few deep breaths. Then, allow your breath to come to its natural rhythm. Count every exhalation up to five and start the cycle again. If you find yourself counting to higher numbers, your attention has wandered. Focus on the breath and start again.

Guided Meditation

Unless you can go to a yoga class to do guided meditation, you’ll find that certain apps like Headspace or Calm work just as well.


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