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The science of breathing: Changing how we think about breath

Julia Park

breathing, mindfulness, focus

Did you know that, on average, you
breathe roughly 22,000 times every day? [1] This simple yet unconscious act of our respiratory system works with our heart to fuel life throughout our entire life. With oxygen as perhaps one of the most essential building blocks to life, we couldn’t exist without this effortless process of inhaling and exhaling.

Yet as essential as breathing is to life, very few of us regularly pay attention to our breath.

You may be wondering, “Why do we need to be aware of our breath? It happens whether we’re aware of it or not.” While this is true, research exploring the importance of breathing has found that how we breathe can greatly impact on our emotional state and wellbeing, and vice versa. 

Throughout our lives, we tend to collect bad breathing habits, like shallow breaths that only reach the top of our lungs. This sort of breathing is associated with activation of our sympathetic nervous system, or stress response system, and can subtly incline us towards more stress and tension during the day. [2]

When we intentionally practice slow, deep breathing, it can help us with relaxation and stay calm, according to research. To experience a deeper impact, using a meditation wearable to practice intentional breathing can provide a better understanding of how it affects your mind and body.

How does intentional breathing affect the body?

Think about the last time you got really overwhelmed with emotion. Someone telling you to “calm down” usually doesn’t help. This is because when we’re highly stressed, the part of our brain responsible for rational thinking (the prefrontal cortex) becomes impaired. In these moments, breathing practices can offer an alternate route to managing our emotions.

Research has found that different emotions are linked with different ways of breathing. [2] In other words, by changing how we breathe, we can change how we feel. For example, when we feel stressed or angry, our breathing tends to become shorter, faster, more irregular, and shallow. When we feel happy or joyous, our breathing becomes deeper and more regular.

The underlying mechanism for these changes rests in our central nervous system. When we’re stressed, our central nervous system activates our sympathetic nervous system’s stress response, also known as our fight or flight response. Once the stressor has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system response, also called the relaxation response, is activated to bring our body back into balance.

Slowing your breath can trigger relaxation, help slow your heart rate, and stimulate the vagus nerve, which is a critical component of the parasympathetic response. [2] These shifts in turn can empower you with the ability to think calmly and rationally, and to feel better.

breathing, relaxation, focus

The benefits of breathwork techniques and the research behind it

Numerous studies have found that practicing breathwork can have many benefits for us. 

For instance, a systematic review of 15 qualitative breathwork studies found that slow breathing led to increased parasympathetic (relaxation system) activation. [3] The researchers found that by affecting the relaxation response, controlled breathing was also linked with shifts in both emotional control and psychological wellbeing, including [3]:

  • Increased relaxation
  • Greater sense of comfort
  • Increased pleasantness 
  • Increased alertness and vigor
  • Decreased arousal
  • Diminished symptoms of anxiety
  • Reduced symptoms of depression
  • Less anger and confusion

Another smaller study found that participants who received a deep, diaphragmatic breathing intervention saw significant increases in their ability to focus and concentrate. They also experienced significant decreases in cortisol (an indicator of stress) and reduced negative affect compared to the control group. [4]

In another study conducted at Yale, researchers found that, compared to mindfulness based intervention, a foundation of emotional intelligence course, and a non-intervention control group, the sky breathing meditation had the greatest benefits. 

These benefits included improved mental health, positive emotions, connectedness, mindfulness, and reduced stress levels and depression. [2] By influencing our stress response, intentional breathing also offers the potential to manage a wide range of stress-related conditions, such as high blood pressure.

In this way, when you breathe deeply and intentionally, you align the action and attention of the mind and body, allowing you to take both a mental and physical approach to cultivating calm and relaxation.

Begin with breathing exercises

There are many ways to get started with breathwork. The simplest place to begin invites you to explore your breathing with an easy and gentle focus. After finding a comfortable and quiet spot, soften your gaze as you journey inward. 

Explore the nature of your breath as it travels through your nose, down your trachea, to fill up both lungs. What does it feel like as your rib cage expands and your diaphragm pushes down to create space for all that oxygen? Do any emotions come up? Pay attention to your experience focusing on your breath, then let it go. There is no right or wrong - only acceptance in this moment. 

As you breathe out, let your mind travel with the carbon dioxide as it leaves the farthest reaches of your alveoli, back through the bronchi before escaping through the bronchioles, back up your throat and out your mouth.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the experience of breathing, you can try additional breathing exercises like Box Breathing. 

This is another simple exercise that is often used to halt the stress response and cultivate calm. Close your eyes and simply breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds. At the top of your breath, pause for four seconds before slowly exhaling for another count of four. Pause at the bottom of your breath.

For Muse users, you can access the Box Breathing exercise on Muse’s Breath Biofeedback Meditations, which shows real-time biofeedback on your breathing patterns.

meditation, breathing, focus

Elevate your breathing with Muse

If you're ready to level up your breathing and gain a deeper understanding of its impact on your well-being, consider practicing with the Muse 2 Headband or the Muse S Headband. These cutting-edge EEG headsets measure your breath rate, heart rate, and body movements, giving you valuable insights into your breathing patterns to guide you to enhance your emotional and physical wellbeing.

As a Muse user, you'll have access to our app, featuring a variety of guided and unguided breath meditation sessions. Explore our Breath Collection series in the app today to sharpen your focus and find calm in your daily routine.

Learn more here >


  1. Discover how many breaths you take every day HERE >>
  2. Read the Harvard Business Review’s overview of the research on breathing techniques for stress HERE >>
  3. Explore a review on breathwork practices HERE >>
  4. Learn about the effects of diaphragmatic breathing HERE >>

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