As stated above, breathing gives us information about a person’s emotional and cognitive state— “you seem stressed”. It also gives us control over these states— “slow down and take a deep breath”. Why? How does it do both?
The simple answer is that breathing is the one physiological function that is both autonomic and voluntary. An autonomic function is one that operates without conscious thought. We don’t have to think about it for it to happen. And just as importantly, we can’t affect it by thinking about it, at least not directly. One example of an autonomic function is digestion, which is autonomic except for chewing and swallowing. We don’t have to think to secrete acids in our stomach or to move food along our digestive system, and we can’t make these things happen by thinking about them. Our heart beating is another. We don’t have to think to make our heart beat, and we can’t make it beat faster, or stop beating, just by thinking about it. Our heart beat is also a great example of an autonomic physiological function that gives us feedback, that is, information, about our emotional and cognitive states, and a pretty instant one at that. A slow heart rate is indicative of relaxation, calm, serenity, or some combination. A fast heart rate is indicative of stress, anxiety, worry, physical exertion, or some combination. It is true that we can indirectly affect heart rate by some actions, that is, by thinking of or imagining a stressful situation, or by engaging in physical exertion. But we cannot directly affect the heart just by thinking “slow down” or “speed up”. Some exceptional individuals, after many years of intensive work with biofeedback techniques or study in the art of pranayama or qigong, can affect the heart in a somewhat voluntary manner. But the vast majority of us cannot. Voluntary actions, by contrast, are purely a product of the conscious mind. Walking or lifting an object doesn’t happen without consciously thinking about and executing the act.
Heart rate is a particularly interesting autonomic function to look at, because it tends to track very closely with breathing rate (also called respiratory rate). That is, pretty much every inner state associated with fast heart rate is associated with fast breathing rate, and the same with slow heart rate and slow breathing rate. Fast heart rate (HR) and fast breathing rate (BR) are associated with physical exertion/exercise, of course. They are also associated with the sympathetic nervous system, the so-called “fight or flight” response. In other words, fast HR and BR are associated with physical exertion, but they are also associated with preparation for physical exertion, that is, being placed on alert. So when we are startled by a loud noise or some other signal that calls for a possible rapid response, our nervous system amps up, adrenaline is released, and we are ready for “flight or fight”. When we have decided that the threat or other call to action has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, we relax, and our HR and BR slow.
Breathing, as discussed above, is both autonomic and voluntary, and it is the only physiological function that is both. For one, we don’t have to think about it for it to happen, it happens automatically all the time. But we can also stop breathing any time we want. We can do this for a good 30 seconds, or with some practice, a few minutes, before the autonomic system interceded and starts trying to force us to breath. We can also easily speed our breathing, even though we may not be nervous, anxious, or exercising, in other words, even if we don’t really need to.
Thus breathing lies at the fascinating intersection of autonomic and voluntary control. This is profound enough to be worth reflecting on for a moment. In dolphins, by contrast, breathing is purely voluntary— to them, breathing is like walking. And in most land mammals, it is the opposite— breathing is purely autonomic. Since they have no voluntary control over their breathing, they will quickly drown if placed underwater.
Like our HR, out BR rate tells us a lot about our state of mind. But unlike our HR, because we can so easily control our BR, we can readily and rapidly affect that state of mind in just a few seconds, by taking over our breathing and doing it in a mindfulway. Not only can we affect the rate of breathing, we can play with other factors — duration and depth of the inhale and exhale, for instance, to affect our inner states. So take a deep breath, as we are about to learn about taking a deep breath, literally.
2. Human & Dolphin, Wikipedia, US Navy