Breathe and relax. These words have become colloquial in our modern lexicon. During times of stress or fear, we are told by those around us to do just that. But why? And, does it work?

The English word “spirit” comes from the Latin “spiritus”, meaning “breath”, but also “spirit, soul, courage, vigor”

—Merriam Webster Dictionary

Focused breathing exercise had emerged from the realm of alternative and complimentary medicine to an evidence-based treatment modality for anxiety, stress, depression and addictive disease. Yet, this practice has been around for at least a thousand years as “pranayama” — controlled breathing in order to shift one’s consciousness from hyper arousal or a panic state to a focused and contemplative awareness of one’s presence and emotions in time and space. This practice is foundational to most types of yoga.

Although the practice of slow controlled breathing, either independently or with yoga, has been used to promote calmness, and in clinical settings to suppress symptoms of anxiety, especially those associated with panic attacks, the neurobiological connection between breathing and its impact on brain activity is unknown.

Using rodents, Yackle and colleagues set up a novel experiment to investigate this phenomenon. They found that a small cluster of neurons that connect respiration to relaxation, attention, excitement and even anxiety—a sort of metronome for synchronizing rhythm and timing necessary to maintain emotional and physiological homeostasis. This tiny, but powerful cluster of nuclei is called the pre-Bötzinger complex, or preBötC, which project to locus coeruleus (LC).

Also located on the brainstem, the LC is one of our most primitive structures. It is central to alertness, waking, responding to external threats by driving arousal and anxiety, just to name a few of its functions. The LC can flood the brain with norepinephrine during times of severe stress or anxiety and can cause panic and other physiological symptoms. Withdrawal from opioids, for example, causes the LC to flood the brain with norepinephrine. Users report that they feel intense anxiety like their skin is crawling everywhere on their body.

Why Does This Matter?

The preBötC appears to play a major role in regulating the effects of breathing on arousal and emotion, such as experienced during yoga and meditation. Coincidentally, Mindfulness Meditation, along with yoga, has recently emerged as a viable treatment modality in the top treatment centers for substance use disorders.

Discovering the connection between relaxation, anxiety and the role of preBotC and the LC, may lead to new and novel targets for therapeutics and meditative treatments for substance use disorders and other psychiatric disease.