Emotions add flavor to life. Joy, love and contentment make living a pleasure. Anger and fear act as warning signals telling us when to protect ourselves. Most of all, emotions are the glue that binds us to family and friends.
But those same emotions can be so intense it feels as if they’re both tearing us apart and, at the same time, controlling our lives. Emotions can be powerful drivers of our behavior. In the grip of an emotion such as anger we tend to repeat old behavior patterns, patterns we know won’t serve us well. Yet we feel powerless to change what we’re doing.
Managing emotion is, therefore, a vital life skill. If we want to perfect that skill, it’s helpful and often essential to get to the source of our feelings.
From psychologist William James in the 1880s to today, scientists have tried to work out what causes us to experience emotion. Because emotions are felt in the body and have obvious physiological components — shaking, crying, a racing heartbeat — James believed the physiological phenomenon gave rise to the emotions. We don’t cry because we feel sad; we feel sad because we cry.
Over the centuries since James, scientists have put forward a range of theories: emotions are caused by the way we interpret physical responses to events … or by interpreting the events themselves through the prism of our past experience … or by hormones … or by all of the above.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy links our emotions to our thought processes. If, for example, I think people are out to get me, I may feel anxious and fearful. If I think everyone loves me, I am likely to feel joyful or happy. From this perspective, emotions are almost like symptoms generated by our thoughts. But according to a joint study carried out by staff from the University of Quebec and the University of Louvain, William James might have been onto something. The findings show a clear and direct link between emotions and breathing patterns.
The study, entitled “Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion,” involved two groups of volunteers. Group 1 was asked to produce four emotions (joy, anger, fear and sadness) through the use of memory, fantasy and by modifying their breathing pattern. For each of the emotions under examination, scientists monitored and analyzed the various breathing components — speed, location in the lungs, amplitude — and used their findings to draw up a list of breathing instructions.
These instructions were then given to a second group of volunteers who had been told only that they were participating in a study of the cardiovascular impact of breathing styles. Members of Group 2 were asked to breathe according to the instructions drawn up from the earlier experiment. At the end of the 45-minute breathing session, participants completed a questionnaire designed to elicit a range of information, including details of their emotional responses. The results were unmistakable. To varying but significant degrees, the four breathing patterns induced the anticipated emotional responses.
This is important information for anyone struggling to manage his or her emotional life. When caught up in the intensity of an emotion, particularly the so-called “negative” emotions — anger, sadness, fear and its low-lying cousin, anxiety — it is difficult to observe one’s own breathing pattern. But to a detached observer the patterns are obvious. When we’re sad we sigh frequently. When angry, we breathe rapidly. In the grip of fear our breathing is shallow and from the top of the lungs. And sometimes we hold our breath without realizing that’s what we’re doing.
My experience as a therapist tells me the source of our emotions can be complex. They can be linked to thought patterns, old memories and unconscious belief systems, as well as physiological changes in the body. Plumbing these depths alone can be daunting and we often need the support of a therapist. But the element of our emotions that we can manage by ourselves is breathing. We can do this in two ways:
- Short term: Manage the moment.The researchers gave simple instructions during this study. To elicit joy, “breathe and exhale slowly and deeply through the nose; your breathing is very regular and your ribcage relaxed.” Deep, slow breathing into the belly is strong medicine for anxiety, fear and anger. When we cry, for example, we usually gulp air into our upper chest. It is almost impossible to cry and breathe into our belly at the same time. Belly breathing loosens the grip of feeling. Return to upper chest breathing and the emotion and the tears will return. In the midst of strong emotion, the breathing of joy can be utilized to ease emotional pain and stress.
- Long term: Emotional balance.Does the breathing pattern cause the emotion or does the emotion cause the breathing pattern? This study indicates that emotions may be caused, at least in part, by the way we breathe. We all have our own way of breathing. If you observe breathing patterns in others you will see great variation in speed, depth, location in the lungs, and in the length and type of pause between breaths.
The significance of a particular breathing pattern varies from person to person but they all say something about the way that person interacts with life. Shallow breathing often accompanies fear, however subtly that fear might be felt. Deep, full breathing often accompanies confidence, however quietly confidence might be expressed. When a full breather takes shallow breaths over a prolonged period, they begin to feel the hint of panic that lack of oxygen can induce. The shallow breather can feel that all the time, without being aware of it.
The real key to managing our emotional states through breathwork is to become aware of how we breathe as we go through our day and practice more calming, joyful breathing. We need to practice breathing techniques like the breathing of joy, not just when we’re in the grip of strong feeling, but daily, as a routine, much like brushing our teeth.
Philippot, P. & Blairy, S. (2010). Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion, Cognition and Emotion, Vl. 16, No 5 (August 2002), pp. 605-627. Or free at: http://www.ecsa.ucl.ac.be/personnel/philippot/RespiFBO10613.pdf.