Ever noticed how your breathing gets rapid and shallow when you’re feeling nervous and anxious?
It might be right before an exam or an important client meeting or work presentation.
Your palms are sweaty, your heartbeat flutters out of control, and your breathing is all over the place.
During times like this, you or someone else might have imparted the advice, “Calm down! Take a deep breath!”
But despite how common that advice is, not everyone knows how to follow it – which is especially crucial, as mindful breathing is historically and scientifically proven to ease stress and anxiety.
Breathing has been a core concept in many practices revolving around better life and health.
And brain science has turned up multiple correlations between deep, mindful breathing and a better, relaxed state of mind suited for better learning, memory, and overall performance. This type of breathing helps your brainwaves slow down and go more into an alpha state, which is ideal for learning.
Alpha brain waves help you be more relaxed, focused and aware.
Today, I’m going to show you how to use the science-backed practice of mindful breathing relieve stress and be in a better state for learning.
4 Ways Mindful Breathing Calms You and Places You in the Ideal State for Learning
1. Mindful Breathing Stimulates Your Vagus Nerve
When you’re panicking, stressed, anxious, or afraid, your breathing tends to get faster and shallower.
This uptick in your breathing feeds into the panic you’re feeling, turning into a negative feedback loop of stress.
And as you’ve probably experienced yourself, this fidgety, worked-up state of mind is not the most conducive for learning or cognitive functioning.
When you’re feeling nervous or anxious, a part of your central nervous system – the sympathetic nervous system – which regulates your fight-or-flight response is in high gear.
But, multiple studies have found that with mindful breathing, you can slow down and reduce the effects of these stress signals and minimize the fight or flight response. That fight or flight response was hardwired into us so we could be always on the alert for tigers chasing us.
Specifically, mindful breathing stimulates the longest nerve in your body, which runs from your brain to your abdomen. It’s called the vagus nerve.
As mindful breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, the parasympathetic nervous system (the one that calms you down) kicks in, because you are stimulating the parasympathetic nerve fibers in your vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve and the 4-7-8 Mindful Breathing Technique
The vagus nerve controls both sensory and motor functions and is connected to several parts of your body that react when you’re agitated or stressed.
These include the heart, lungs, and throat.
When you slow down and concentrate on mindful breathing, you break the loop of panicked stimuli.
In fact, just one deep, steady breath can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which has the opposite effect as that of the sympathetic nervous system.
Since it’s all part of an interconnected system, by altering your breathing, you can affect the other parts of the system and negate feelings of stress and anxiety.
Mindful breathing flips a switch and your whole body relaxes.
Here’s one of many mindful breathing exercises to try. This one is called the 4-7-8 technique.
Inhale for 4 seconds, hold the breath in your lungs for 7 seconds, and then exhale, slowly, for 8 seconds.
Do this a couple of times, and you will feel your mind clearing, heart slowing down, pulse returning to normal – leaving you calm and ready to learn!
2. Use Mindful Breathing to Stimulate Alpha Waves Which is The Perfect State for Learning
Deep and mindful breathing affects the brain, as well.
The neurons in your brain communicate with each other in pulses of electrical signals, or brainwaves.
There are four types of brain waves and one of them is scientifically proven to be the best for learning.
When you are in a relaxed state, your brain is producing alpha waves.
This sort of activity happens in your brain when you first wake up or right before you’re about to go to sleep.
On the other hand, when you’re alert, tense, stressed, or otherwise agitated in some way, your brain is producing beta waves.
If your brain is undergoing too much beta wave activity, this can cause you a bunch of problems, including feelings of stress and anxiety, mood disorders, as well as disease, accelerated aging, etc.
Luckily, breathing exercises positively stimulate alpha wave activity in the brain.
The calmer, more balanced state of mind encouraged by alpha waves correlates with increased creativity and better learning and retention!
The 4-7-8 technique is one example of many mindful breathing exercises.
Another is to breathe in through your nose for three seconds, hold your breath for 2, and then breathe out through your mouth for four seconds.
As you focus your attention on counting the seconds and how to breathe in and out, you’re less focused on your stress and worries.
As a result, this stimulates your vagus nerve and the alpha waves of your brain, to leave you clearer-headed and calmer for better learning.
3. The Science on How Mindful Breathing Helps You Feel Worry-Free
Mindful breathing and breathing exercises involve focusing on your breath and helps you become worry-free!
When you focus on your breathing, slowly counting the seconds you inhale and exhale, you stimulate the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex in your brain and dampen the activity of the amygdala.
The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is in charge of things like your memory and selective attention – so, mindful breathing triggers better focus and get you ready to learn!
Meanwhile, the reason it is so important to dampen the activity of the amygdala is because of what it does in your brain.
The amygdala is an almond shaped part of your brain that controls how you react to certain stimuli, or events that cause emotions. It is especially responsible for the emotion of fear.
By focusing your attention on your mindful breathing, you center yourself and calm your amygdala. Thus, you’re more clear-headed and prepared for the learning or exam at hand.
As you can see, you can use mindful breathing to relieve stress and improve learning!
4. Mindful Breathing, Sleep and Better Learning
Better sleep is necessary for better learning because your brain encodes into long-term memory what you learned during the day.
Without this period of memory consolidation, you’re much more likely to forget what you learn, as well as lack the alertness you need to be able to use it.
Moreover, sleep helps regulate and calm your amygdala.
People who don’t get enough high-quality sleep tend to exhibit stronger negative emotions like sorrow, fear, anxiety. On the other hand, those who sleep better give these emotions less significance.
So, to wake up well-rested and ready to focus instead of forgetful, clumsy, and sluggish, you can use mindful breathing exercises to sleep better!
Studies find that 20 minutes of breathing exercises can help you fall asleep almost three times faster than you would be able to otherwise.
As you can see, through a system of biofeedback, you can alter many of your brain and body’s responses to stress just by mindful breathing.
So how can you use mindful breathing to relieve stress and improve your learning?
Here are a couple of tips!
3 Types of Mindful Breathing to Relieve Stress and Improve Your Learning
Body Position – Good Posture
A healthy posture, with your shoulders rolled back, and head up, promotes better breathing.
By doing this, you’re allowing your respiratory system the right room to expand and contract freely and allow for fuller, deeper breaths.
If you feel nervous or stressed, whether you’re standing or sitting, straighten your body up, and breathe deeply – you’ll notice a difference almost immediately!
1. Breathe Through Your Stomach
When a baby breathes, you see their little tummies expand.
This is the correct way of breathing.
You might feel as though your belly expanding isn’t all that flattering when everyone’s aspiring for a flat stomach – but when you try to hold your breath in, you’re breathing more shallowly than you should.
As a result, your respiratory system, including your diaphragm, isn’t getting enough room to fully expand and breathe deeply and steadily.
Shallow breathing, as you’ve seen, can actually trigger feelings of tension and stress.
So instead of the tight pants and tummy restricting outfits on quiz day or big work presentation day, wear something that lets you breathe deeply and fully.
Breathe in, let your stomach expand, and your chest swell, and as you breathe out, let your stomach deflate, and then your chest.
Breathing “through your stomach” is an excellent way to calm you down if you’re starting to feel the nerves and get you relaxed enough to refocus!
2. Cardiac Coherence Breathing Exercises
Cardiac coherence utilizes the biofeedback system to regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, etc. by stimulating your vagus nerve with slow, steady breathing.
You inhale slowly for five seconds, and then you exhale for the same amount of time.
By counting the seconds, you are focusing your mind away from your stress and on to your breathing.
Also, by timing it, you are ensuring your breathing is sufficiently deep and steady to trigger your parasympathetic nerve system and vagus nerve.
Controlled breathing is a central part of meditation, and meditation as a whole has been scientifically linked to better focus, reduced negative emotions, and better learning and memory.
Not just meditation, but other activities that emphasize focused and controlled breathing, like yoga and tai chi, are all beneficial to help you counter stress and anxiety.
As a result, you also prime your brain for better learning!
With something as simple, safe, and easy as mindful breathing, you can combat stress and ready yourself and your brain for better learning.
While reading this, did you try out any of the tips I talked about?
And are you going to, the next time you feel the nerves poking at you?
I would love to know how it goes for you!
Pat Wyman is a learning expert, university instructor, best-selling author and the CEO of HowtoLearn.com. She invites you to take the free Learning Styles Quiz on the home page.
Her courses, Total Recall Learning™ for Students, Total Recall Learning for Professionals™, Total Recall Speed Reading™and Total Recall Memory™ have benefited over half a million learners with higher grades, increased productivity and the ability to know how to read faster, learn and remember anything.
She’s worked with people in such corporations as Microsoft, Raychem and Sandvine and has won several life-time achievement awards for her work. Pat is a mom, golden retriever lover and big time San Francisco Giants fan! Come on by if you’re ever at a Giant’s game and she’ll welcome you with open arms.