Using Breath to Change Emotions

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By Jeff Kohn

Modern science has tended to divorce the body from the mind by embracing the paradigm that human beings are, above all, cognitive creatures who must use mental discipline to control their feelings and emotions.

Although effectively using mental discipline may be possible when one gets a $15 parking ticket, it will be a lot less effective when your car gets towed away for improper parking and you are running late for a job interview. For example, underlying thoughts that may arise when the auto is towed in might be "I am such an idiot", "I'm a failure", I can't do anything right", I didn't deserve this job anyway".

In the process of attempting to control the mind, thoughts also arise that evaluate one's success. And under stress or mental overload, this internal evaluation process often triggers the unwanted thoughts themselves, thus undermining one's best intentions. In short, the mind telling the mind to relax often creates more stress and reinforces the same negative messages (for example "I can't even do this right", etc.).

It is very important that we learn to change our thoughts from negative to positive, for when we can our emotions will follow. Yet doing so is a process in mindfulness and it takes practice to achieve lasting success, especially if one's pattern of negative thinking is deeply engrained. One must first become aware (mindful) of the negative thought while it's occurring or shortly after it has occurred and then he or she must apply the antidote by reversing the thought from negative to positive. I highly recommend reading Peter McWilliams' book entitled You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Though, as it simply sets forth how to effect a change in thinking in order to change emotions.

In the interim, yogic breathing, or pranayama, offers another alternative to change one's emotions and it can be used prior to, during, or even after a cognitive change. Many times there are no underlying messages which you are repeating to yourself, but the situation in which you find yourself is overwhelmingly stressful in and of itself, and you simply need stress relief.

Yogis have studied the breath as a way to calm the mind and relax the body for millennia. They noticed that when the mind wanders into the past and future, it elicits a whole range of emotions, mostly negative. Thoughts of the past can bring up feelings of regret, anger and sadness. Thoughts of the future often arouse anxiety and fear. Dr. Andrew Weil says "If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly."

The yogis learned that positive emotions were mostly experienced when focusing on the present moment, and that the present moment was most easily accessible and experienced by bringing one's attention to the breath. Ravi Shankar metaphorically said that "the mind is like a kite, flying here and there, and the breath is like the string of the kite, generally bringing the mind back into the present moment. The breath brings the mind, which is all over the place, back to its source, a natural state of peacefulness and joy."

Modern research has confirmed the connection between breathing and emotions. Different emotional states are associated with distinct respiratory patterns. For example, rapid, shallow breathing occurs when one is anxious, while deep, slow breathing is associated with a state of relaxation.  Breath is unique among autonomic functions of the body in that it can happen automatically (like digestion and heartbeat) or it can be controlled. For this reason breath does not automatically accompany an emotional state but can, instead, be used to change one's emotional state. Studies have shown that purposeful, rapid, shallow breathing will cause anxiety while deep, slow breathing will create relaxation.

In addition to breathing having an immediate and positive effect on our psychological well-being, it can also have a positive effect physiologically, such as blood pressure and heart rate reduction. Within minutes, you will feel better and your body will be in a healthier state.

There are many types of yogic breathing, and I have chosen three of them which are listed below. Because I am a visual person, I have referenced a video link for each technique in order to afford you with what I think is a better explanation than my trying to verbally explain the technique in this article.

1. Belly Breathing. This involves deep breathing and, accordingly, is sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing since it is marked by expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest. It is generally considered a healthier and fuller way to ingest oxygen, and is often used to reduce anxiety and stress and create a calming effect in the body. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5H_Qrcmxdg.

2. Alternate Nostril Breathing. This method is said to cool the mind and emotions while reducing stress and anxiety. Like the name, it involves alternating breathing through each nostril. It also can improve sleep, encourage a calmer emotional state, boost your thinking power and soothe your nervous system, all while balancing both hemispheres of the brain. It's an excellent practice to relax you before having an important conversation or meeting that makes you nervous. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCK1jBfRVsE.

3. The 4-7-8 Breath (or Relaxing Breath). People, including Dr. Andrew Weil, have claimed this method to be the single most effective technique to reduce anxiety and retrain the nervous system to become calmer. It's helpful with depression, irritability, muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwlCk9XTz_U.