Recently a friend helped me discover why I am not a fearful person anymore. She did this unknowingly, but during our conversation and then serendipitously I became aware of why. Let me explain.
My friend will be visiting the north rim of the Grand Canyon in a few weeks. A long journey from North Carolina. Her grown children are taking her for a week long excursion to celebrate her 70th birthday in some fascinating areas of Nevada and Utah. When she mentioned the Grand Canyon, I interjected, I have a big memory of that place. Over 20 years ago I planned a hike there for my young family. Bright Angel Point is a short walk with spectacular views of the North rim. I told her how we were excited to take this short hike, but I couldn’t do it because I became paralyzed with fear. I had been fearful of heights most of my life.
When I told her I was no longer afraid of heights and she was curious as to why?
“Not sure,” was my answer and I pondered what had brought that about.
The next morning my answer came in the form of an email. Mindfulness and meditation changes the brain and body in so many wonderful ways, it also alleviates long term fear. Although I am far from perfect, I live a very peaceful life and fear is not part of my experience any more. My creativity has increased and I maintain great health. It is really cool when a body gets in balance and meditation and mindfulness aid in this process. As we seek and find higher states of consciousness the benefits are sometimes surprising, just as my response to my friend, “Not sure.” It is subtle and has long term effects.
This is the email I received from Kelly Howell, Brain Sync Conscious Evolution Newsletter. BrainSync
Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear
We know that breathing affects our heart rate, calms our mind, helps with depression and anxiety. Research is showing that is also creates electrical activity in our brain that influences emotional judgments and memory recoil.
Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.
Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.
These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.
In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.
“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”
The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.
Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.
This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.
The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.
When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.
In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.
The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.
“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”
Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.
Live well my friends during these uncertain days. Take care of yourself and live courageously. Love, Julia
Julia Parsell is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor with an emphasis on the intersection of science and the sacred. She writes from experiences and transformative understandings that have led her to an authentic and peaceful life. She goes by these names: wife, daughter, grandmother, mother, sister, aunt, niece, cousin, and friend. As home educator of her three children, she also developed/ran cafes, and maintained various leadership roles within her community. Her greatest desire is to encourage others to live life fully. Her passions are family, art creation, writing, and trail blazing. She is happily married in Western North Carolina.