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-behavioraltherapy 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.