SKY Meditation teacher, author, and researcher EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D shares insight on the mind-breath connection.
We have an intuitive understanding that the breath can regulate our mind and emotions. Most of us have either told others or been told ourselves to “take a deep breath” when things got challenging. Most clinical psychologists use some kind of breathing practice with patients. However, because breathing happens automatically, many of us don’t give the breath as much attention as it deserves nor have we learned to harness its full potential to calm our minds.
One of the reasons why breathing can change how we feel is that emotions and breathing are closely connected. A revealing research study by Pierre Phillipot showed that different emotional states are associated with distinct respiration patterns. In Phillipot’s study, participants came in and were instructed to generate emotions like sadness, fear, anger and happiness to the best of their ability. While they were experiencing the emotions, Phillipot’s team requested participants to closely observe and report on their own respiration patterns. The research team found that each emotion was associated with a distinct pattern of breath. For example, when the participants felt anxious or afraid, they breathed more quickly and shallowly and when they felt happy, they breathed slowly and fully. Even more interesting was the follow-up study in which the researchers invited in a different group of participants into their lab and instructed them to breathe in the patterns they had observed corresponded to emotions. The researchers literally told the participants how to breathe and then asked them how they felt. Lo and behold, the participants started to feel the emotions that corresponded to the breathing patterns!
EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track (HarperOne, 2016). She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, and Scientific American Mind.