Keep Calm and Breathe On

Keep Calm and Breathe On

Monday, 13 November 2017

Kiat Hui Khng, PhD, Research Scientist, Education and Cognitive Development Lab, Office of Education Research, National Institute of Education

Keep Calm and Breathe On

To take slow, deep breaths is advice commonly dispensed to people nervous about an upcoming task such as a test or an interview. The dispositional tendency to perceive evaluative situations as threatening is known as trait test anxiety. Individuals high in trait test anxiety respond to such situations with state test anxiety, characterised by the activation of the autonomous nervous system and feelings of tension, apprehension, and nervousness [1].

Test anxiety can adversely impact psychological well-being and performance. In a laboratory setting, our OER-funded SUG research study found evidence that a minute of deep breathing before a test effectively reduced feelings of anxiety and enhanced test performance in primary five students, compared to a control group of students. In our study, deep breathing was found to reduce state anxiety before the test, leading to a better state of mind during the test (a better balance between maladaptive, debilitative thoughts, and adaptive, facilitative thoughts), which in turn led to improved test performance [2].

In deep breathing, air is directed deep into the belly and not shallowly into the chest. Also known as belly, abdominal, or diaphragmatic breathing, slow, controlled deep breathing slows down one’s respiratory rate and focuses one’s attention on each breath. Respiratory patterns are closely related to affective and autonomic arousal states: quick, shallow, thoracic breathing is associated with anxiety, tension, and unpleasant effects; slow, deep, abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing is associated with relaxation and pleasant effects [3]. With physiological effects contrary to autonomic arousal and hyperventilation, deep breathing promotes a state of relaxation and is commonly included in the management of anxiety-related symptoms in anxiety disorders.

While our study demonstrated an indirect link between breathing and more complex behaviours via the reduction of state anxiety, a recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University has found preliminary evidence suggesting a more direct connection between breathing and higher order brain function—at least in mice. It appears that a subtype of the neurons in the mouse brainstem involved in generating breathing rhythms directly influenced behavioural arousal—deactivating these neurons resulted in “chill” mice who exhibited a greater proportion of calm behaviours (sitting and grooming) as opposed to active behaviours. Recordings of their brain activity showed increased slow-wave delta activity and decreased active-brain state theta activity [4]. Incidentally, our ongoing OER-funded follow-up study is examining brainwave changes associated with our deep breathing intervention, and how that relates to changes in children’s state anxiety and performance.

As the authors of the Stanford study commented, slow, controlled breathing has long been used by practitioners of pranayama (e.g. in yoga) to induce a state of calmness and relaxation. Science is only slowly beginning to uncover the scientific basis behind this ancient wisdom.

1. Spielberger, C.D. (1972). Anxiety: Current trends in theory and research: I. Oxford, England: Academic Press.
2. Khng, K.H. (2016). A better state-of-mind: deep breathing reduces state anxiety and enhances test performance through regulating test cognitions in children. Cognition and Emotion,  p. 1-9.
3. Boiten, F.A., N.H. Frijda, and C.J. Wientjes (1994). Emotions and respiratory patterns: review and critical analysis. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 17(2), 103-128.
4. Yackle, K., et al. (2017). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science. 355(6332), 1411-1415.