The Connection Between Breath and Emotions

Breathing is one of the most critical aspects of our lives — it’s something we do every day, several times a minute. Yet, we generally don’t think much about how or why we breathe. When you begin to explore this topic in depth, you may suddenly feel the powerful connection between breath and emotion. In fact, connecting with your breath not only relaxes us in moments of stress and anxiety but also regulates our breathing during intense emotions such as fear, anger or sadness. Understanding this relationship can be incredibly transformative as it offers the ability to shift between emotional states consciously. In this blog post, we will discuss the link between our breath and emotional states and how to use your breath to control your emotions.

The Nose Is The Ultimate Emotional Regulator 

How you breathe has a powerful effect on your emotional state. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know that your breathing quickly escalates to all-mouth at a rapid pace.  But that only makes things worse.  Even at rest, when you breathe through your mouth, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and cortisol levels increase, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety and panic attacks.

Nasal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, resulting in increased relaxation, decreased cortisol levels, and a greater ability to focus (learn 30 reasons why you should nose breathe).  Additionally, nasal breathing has been found to enhance cognitive performance and improve memory retention. 

Carbon Dioxide: Friend or Foe? 

Your relationship with carbon dioxide can also affect your emotions.  Carbon dioxide is often viewed as a waste product of respiration. On the contrary, carbon dioxide is an essential gas for breathing that has many benefits, such as promoting better cardiovascular health, improving oxygen delivery to muscles, and regulating acid-pH equilibrium. It also helps our bodies to regulate temperature and releases energy through respiration.  Higher tolerance to carbon dioxide can help us to better process and cope with challenging emotions and the physical impacts of stress. Luckily, we can train to improve CO2 tolerance.  

There is a very close correlation between CO2 tolerance and states of anxiety.  The ability to control your breath directly reduces the amount of general anxiety you feel.   Individuals who are more sensitive to changes in CO2 levels may be more prone to experiencing anxiety symptoms. This is because high levels of CO2 can cause physical sensations such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, and dizziness, which can be mistaken for signs of a panic attack. People with anxiety disorders may also be more likely to focus on and interpret these sensations as threatening, leading to increased anxiety and hyperventilation. Round and round you go on the ferris wheel of anxiety. Research has shown that exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing individuals to CO2-rich environments, can be an effective way to increase CO2 tolerance and reduce anxiety symptoms. By learning to tolerate higher levels of CO2, individuals with anxiety may be able to reduce their sensitivity to CO2 and decrease the likelihood of experiencing anxiety symptoms in the future.

Studies have also shown that higher CO2 levels can improve concentration, alertness and reaction time in both stressful environments and everyday life.  For example, in one study conducted at the University of Toronto, researchers found that doubling CO2 concentrations from 0.4% to 0.8% was associated with a significant increase in accuracy and reaction time on computer-based tests. Similarly, another research team at the Harvard School of Public Health observed an increase in academic performance for students exposed to higher levels of CO2. These studies suggest that having a greater tolerance for this essential gas can have a positive impact on our cognitive abilities, helping us better handle stress and other challenges.

high vagal tone

Vagus nerve

The Vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves, running from the brainstem to the abdomen and branching out to various organs and body systems. It plays a vital role in regulating many bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and breathing. Recent research has shown a strong connection between the Vagus nerve, breathing, and emotional regulation, suggesting that certain breathing techniques can stimulate the Vagus nerve, leading to increased emotional regulation.

When we breathe slowly and deeply through the nose, it stimulates the Vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress. Conversely, shallow or rapid breathing can activate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to feelings of stress and anxiety.  By practicing deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or pranayama, we can intentionally stimulate the Vagus nerve and get our emotions in check. All you need to do is breathe deeply and slowly through the nose, focus on “belly breathing,” and use the diaphragm.  The point is to increase a measure called the “Vagal tone,” which is a measure of the strength and responsiveness of the Vagus nerve.

By incorporating deep breathing exercises along with physical activity and meditation into our daily lives, we can increase our Vagal tone and promote emotional regulation. The vagus nerve can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce and prevent inflammation, and enhance our ability to cope with stress and adversity.

What about happiness and fulfillment? 

According to the father of the “flow state,” legendary psychologist Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi, “the happiest people on earth, the ones who felt their lives had the most meaning, were those who had the most peak experiences.” Csikszentmihalyi found this across extensive data taken from all demographics – little old ladies, extreme athletes, investment bankers.  

The flow state, also known as being “in the zone,” is a mental state where an individual is fully immersed and focused on an activity. This is a “peak experience.” Csikszentmihalyi’s “peak experiences” are characterized by a sense of timelessness, effortless concentration, and heightened creativity or being in the flow. Research has shown that the flow state is associated with positive emotions, such as joy, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment.  

On the flip side, emotions play a significant role in getting into the flow state, as positive emotions can help to facilitate and sustain it. When an individual is engaged in an activity that they enjoy and find meaningful, they are more likely to experience positive emotions, such as excitement, curiosity, and enthusiasm. These emotions can create a positive feedback loop, where the more engaged and focused the individual becomes, the more positive emotions they experience, and the more likely they are to stay in the flow state. Furthermore, the flow state can also positively impact emotions by reducing negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, and boredom. 

The good news is you can use breathwork to bring about the flow state.   Extreme athletes use breathing to get into the flow state.  The U.S. Military even teaches its Special Forces to use box breathing to get into flow for battle.  There are several ways that breathing can help to facilitate the flow state:

1. Relaxation: Deep, slow breathing can help to promote relaxation and reduce physical and mental tension. This can create a sense of calm and ease, which is conducive to entering the flow state.

2. Stress reduction: By reducing stress, breathing can help to clear the mind and reduce distractions. This can help to create a sense of mental clarity and focus, which is essential for entering the flow state.

3. Mindfulness: Focusing on the breath can help to cultivate mindfulness and present-moment awareness. This can help to reduce distractions and increase focus, leading to a deeper sense of immersion in the activity.  

4. Energy regulation: Breathing techniques can help to regulate energy levels and promote a sense of balance and harmony. This can help to create a sense of ease and effortlessness, which is essential for entering the flow state.

5. Quieting the Ego: breathwork can help silence the prefrontal cortex, get your inner self-critic to back off, and reset your ingrained habits to prime you for increased creativity and flow. 

Breathing can be a powerful tool for bringing on the flow state and as many top performers and athletes would agree, the flow state equals pure bliss.  If so you’re looking to hack happiness, use the breath to prime yourself to enter the flow state and then do something you love and find challenging. 

Access your inner emotional states through breathwork

While most of us intuitively understand the power of breath to relax, we may not be aware of it as a tool for emotional regulation. Different breathwork techniques can help you access different emotional states. Low, deep, and slow breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, initiating a physiological shift that can move us from a state of anxiety or reactivity into a place of calm and reflection. For example, when you argue with your significant other, your automatic “fight or flight” instinct may kick in.  Try controlling your breath using deep, slow breaths.  You may be able to pause the sympathetic nervous system response and create a little space to think. Imagine all the things you wouldn’t have said if you had this control.   

Just as we can moderate our “emotional set-point” to gain mastery over our sympathetic nervous system, we can use the breath to amp ourselves up for a period of intense focus.  An example of this comes from the surfing world. If you watch professional surfer Jack Robinson before he competes in a contest on the World Surfing Tour, you’ll see him taking 2 minutes of short and sharp inhales followed by longer exhales. Using this pattern of superventilation, he is intentionally engaging his sympathetic nervous system to fire himself up for his heat.  However, once he paddles out and is waiting for a set wave, he’ll return to a low/slow/deep pattern to stay calm. We can use this understanding of the breath-based nervous system to bring about the correct state for the moment. 

Adapting breathing techniques to everyday life

Once you’ve trained in breathwork techniques, it’s time to decide which technique when. A regular breathwork practice will help you become more self-aware of your heart rate and breathing. With some practice, you will be able to track your moods throughout the day by monitoring your breathing rate, rhythm, and depth.  

When you attune yourself to your breath, you’ll feel any movement away from your optimal state. Optimal states vary based on personality, but essentially, this is when you are feeling good and can access both reason and emotion. From this “window of tolerance,” your mood can swing based on a given stimulus to put you in a position of hyper or hypoarousal. 

How to breath during hyper-arousal

When you start feeling anxious, fidgety, frustrated or tense, you are in a state of hyper-arousal.  The antidote to these feelings is breathwork that activates the parasympathetic nervous system.  Try low/deep/slow breathing, box or triangle breathing, coherence breathing or humming. The idea is to reduce your breathing rate and increase carbon dioxide to calm your system down and return to homeostasis. 

Try this: heart coherence breathing

Practice this optimal breathing technique for 5 minutes or more.  Reduce your breathing rate to 5.5 breaths per minute using slow and low exhales and inhales.  Breathing is directly related to heart rate variability and by changing the way we breathe, we can control our heart frequency to make it more stable. According to author David Servan Schreiber (Healing Without Freud or Prozac) breathing in this way brings about a state of physiological, physical, mental and emotional balance. 

Try this: humming 

Humming breathwork, also known as Brahmari Pranayama, is a breathing technique that involves producing a humming sound during exhalation. This technique has been found to have several benefits for individuals who experience a state of heightened physiological and psychological arousal that can be associated with anxiety, stress, and trauma. Humming activates the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulates the vagus nerve, and reduces the physical symptoms of hyper arousal (rapid heart rate, shallow breathing and muscle tension).  Humming also increases Nitric Oxide (NO) by up to 15-20 times helping to open up airways and kill pathogens. NO is known to be broadly antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial.

Breathing for hypo-arousal 

Alternatively, when you feel depressed, lethargic, numb or unmotivated, you can use breathwork to stimulate your sympathetic nervous system and get you out of hypo-arousal.   This is where Jack Robinson’s superventilation techniques come into play.  This is also where Wim Hoff breathing can be helpful. 

Try this: Kapalabhati Breath

Kapalabhati Breath is a type of breathing technique commonly used in yoga that can help to energize and invigorate the body and mind. This technique involves rapid and forceful exhalations through the nose, followed by passive inhalations. The rhythmic pumping action of the breath can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response, leading to increased alertness and a surge of energy. Kapalabhati Breath can also help to clear the mind of mental fog, improve focus and concentration, and reduce stress and anxiety. Therefore, when you feel sluggish or need a quick pick-me-up, incorporating Kapalabhati Breath into your daily routine can help to pump you up and increase your energy levels.

Try This: Supra Ventilation and Breakthrough Breathwork

Breakthrough Breathwork is a combination of breathing exercises, where the experience is amplified by the perfect combination of musical tunes and instruments. The supra or superventilation breathing exercises involved in the breakthrough breathwork can increase oxygen levels in the body and improve circulation, giving you energy to tackle whatever comes next. It involves a series of rapid deep breaths followed by a final breath hold, which can be done for up to several minutes.  The deep and rapid breathing involved in the technique can help to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness. The final breath hold can also trigger a variety of physiological responses, including a reduction in stress and anxiety, improved blood flow, and increased resilience to stress. Participants say they experience out of body experiences, release of stuck emotions and emotional healing after this practice.

This Is Why Breathwork Could Change The World

People everywhere sing the praises of breathwork because learning to control your emotional states makes you a better person. Breathwork increases stress tolerance and grounds you during challenging situations. Awareness of your breathing gives you a constant internal tracking device and the ability to self-regulate when things get out of control.  You also can learn how certain types of breathing create a physiological response and use this knowledge to your advantage.  Greater self-awareness ultimately leads to better decision-making and better humans. 

Audrey is a Surfer, Bad-ass Adventure Mom and Breathless Breathwork Instructor.

Audrey runs a creative media marketer, copywriter, project manager company and hosts amazing surfing retreats for moms.

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