Anxious? Just breathe

Julie Williams, instructor at Yoga Vida, has her students practice their controlled breathing before their morning yoga session. (Photo by: Jessica Carpenter / Arizona Sonora News).

Close your eyes. Place your left hand on your abdomen and your right hand on your chest. Take a deep breath in from your lower lungs through your nose. Hold that breath for four seconds. Calmly exhale through your mouth. Repeat.

Feel calmer?

Many studies have indicated that you should. However, a recent study done on mice may have found the exact reason as to why deep breathing can calm someone down and reduce anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common illness in the United States affecting 40 million people age 18 or older.

At the University of Arizona, 16 percent of students have been diagnosed with anxiety while 36 percent have said that anxiety has made it somewhat or very difficult to work on their studies. Fifty percent of students have experienced tremendous stress, according to a 2015 Health and Wellness survey.

According to Nuffield Foundation’s Changing Adolescence Programme, the proportion of these teenagers reporting anxiety has doubled in the last 30 years.

Statistics show increases in anxiety over time.

Health experts believe that current family relationships and more active parenting are to blame for the drastic increase. Dr. Ann Hagell, leader of the Programme, said parents are more involved in their children’s lives for longer.

Anxiety, can be defined as a feeling of worry, or unease, usually as a result of an imminent event or outcome.

Some of the physical symptoms include, dizziness, nausea, sleep problems, elevated heart rate, problems breathing, shaking, sweating and muscle tension.

In a new study at Stanford University done on mice, researchers looked at a cluster of nearly 3,000 neurons in a part of the brain called the breathing pacemaker.

There, they found around 175 neurons that control autonomic breathing. These 175 neurons are bridged to the part of the brain that is responsible for arousal, attention and panic in animals.

To understand how these neurons affected mice, they genetically engineered them to be able to kill off only those 175 neurons by injecting a toxin into the mice called diphtheria. Once those neurons were removed, researchers were anxious to find out what would happen to the mice’s behavior.

But what happened? Nothing.

Dr. Mark Krasnow, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford who oversaw the research, was at first confused and slightly disappointed at the results until they placed the mice into an unfamiliar cage, where mice would usually sniff around and frantically search their surroundings.

There too, they sat, breathing slowly and calmly grooming themselves.

This could have meant one of two things for Dr. Krasnow.

Either researchers had encountered the most chillin’ mice in the universe, or that taking away those 175 neurons had broken the connection to the arousal center, keeping their breathing slow and steady and their panic button untouched.

The answer was most likely the latter.

Researchers of this study strongly believe that if this same pathway exists in humans, there is potential of treating people with anxiety, where this pathway may be over-activated.

Deep and controlled breathing, Krasnow believes, helps lower the activity between those 175 neurons and the arousal neurons, by lowering the feeling of panic.

Julie Williams, a yoga instructor at Yoga Vida in Tucson, practices and teaches the art of

Yoga Vida studio practices the art of bikram yoga. (Photo by: Jessica Carpenter / Arizona Sonora News).

breathing at her yoga studio.

She asks her students to connect with their breath first, through a technique called pranayama yoga, the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises.

“I ask them to bring attention to their abdomen and to feel the rise and fall in order to make the connection to how their body moves when you breathe,” Williams says.

The techniques are great for relieving all types of anxiety, she says.

Feeling stressed? Take a deep breath.

Click here for high-resolution photos.

Jessica Carpenter is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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