A world under stress

Psychologists are utilising current neurobiological research to enhance their understanding of the relationship between bodily processes (in particular breathing, vision, and sleep) and how stress is experienced, manifested, and can be released.

This article centres on prominent Stanford neurobiologist Dr Andrew Huberman’s breathing and sleep research (vision will be discussed subsequently) which builds on the work of pioneers such as Bessel Van Der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score), Daniel Goleman (who coined the term amygdala hijack), and Garbor Mate (When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress).

Huberman embodies a fundamental shift in research direction from a limbic/adrenals/cortisol focus (which drove many effective evidence-based psychotherapeutic approaches including Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy offshoots) to studies involving the amygdala and brainstem.   

The neurobiology of stress

Dr Huberman defines stress as:

..one position along the continuum of autonomic arousal. At one end would be someone in a coma. At the very other end is a full-blown panic attack. In between we have states which include being alert and focused, sleepy, and asleep(1.).

Huberman and his colleagues have identified a close link between the neurons and neurotransmitters (including serotonin and GABA) that control breathing and regions of the brain responsible for autonomic arousal:

  • The amygdala (associated with emotion and fear/stress response) under control of:
  • The hypothalamus (adrenals/cortisol stress response) which also releases bombesin-related peptides which directly affect: 
  • The pre-botzinger complex in the medulla of the brainstem which controls inhalation and oscillates with:
  • The retrotrapezoid nucleus in the lateral brainstem which controls active exhalation.

Whilst skeletal muscle comprises the intercostal and ‘accessory’ muscles of ‘chest breathing’ and the diaphragm of ‘diaphragmatic’ breathing, the diaphragm is uniquely under somatic (voluntary, conscious) and autonomic (involuntary, unconscious) nervous system control.

That the physiological sigh (experienced up to every 5 minutes to correct oxygen concentration in our blood) can also be induced by emotion (the frustrated/sad sigh), points to the important dynamic interrelationship between breathing and our state of mind. If further reinforcement is needed, note that the aforementioned retrotrapezoid nucleus that modulates exhalation is also responsible for the involuntary facial expressions central to interpersonal communication of emotional state.

OK, but how is this relevant to me?

Put simply, it means that by exercising control over breathing we can have an impact on our arousal state. Additionally, breathing is a bridge between the conscious and unconscious (alert and sleeping) control of the body, thus non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) exercises are another avenue for regulating our arousal state.  

The following are a good introduction for those interested in this field:

Whilst this Centre does not endorse the ideas presented (including the use of metabolic supplements) above, it is attended by psychologists who can provide guidance in optimising breathing and healthy sleep which complement a variety of psychotherapeutic approaches to managing stress.

Take home messages

Finally, toward helping with your own journey allow me as a fellow consumer to summarily share my conclusions thus far. Please-

Take what you want and leave the rest.

(12-step aphorism)

  • Look for Proof: ‘double-blind crossover’ studies published in reputable journals e.g. Huberman cites 2 recent papers in Cell Reports which concluded that 20 minutes of NSDR after a learning experience results in faster and better retention and a 50% increase in neuro-plasticity.
  • Start like a couch potato: 5-20 minutes a day of exercises (breathing, meditation, apps etc).
  • Beware the ‘hard and fast’ (literally and figuratively!): e.g. “..only belly-breathe..” or “always be calm”.
  • Try a variety until you find what you like: e.g. meditation scripts- find a voice you like hearing. Huberman recommends $0 Kamini Desai and Liam Gillen narrations.
  • Look for resonances of old and new findings: e.g. Bhagavad Gita (first millennium BCE) vs. The Relaxation & Stress Workbook(3.) (1995) for breathing practises.
  • Breathe through your nose if possible: it
    • Stimulates
      • The hypothalamus to boost memory
      • The paranasal sinuses to produce nitric oxide which dilates blood vessels to promote muscle perfusion and lower resting blood pressure
    • Maintains
      • The viscosity of airway membrane secretions by pre-humidifying air according to environmental conditions
    • Optimises
      • Oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange by utilising nasopharyngeal architecture- air flow is shaped into a turbulent downward spiral, producing deeper penetration and increased contact time with alveolar membranes.
  • Observe how you fall asleep at night: You might find that “emptying your mind”, “turning off”, or other popular assertions do not align with your actual transition into slumber. Rather, you may experience your thoughts becoming fragmented and your focus shifting and dissolving. Just before the unconscious takes over the helm, you might notice time and space (the objects of consciousness) fading into fluidity.

Thus Yoga Nidra, hypnosis, and other NSDR techniques are recommended by Dr Huberman.

  1. Wapner, J. (2021). Secrets to Surviving Stressful Times. Scientific American Mind. Jan/Feb 2021   
  2. Saraswati, S. (1969). Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga.
  3. Davis, M. et al. (1995). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 4th Ed.
  4. Luo, L. (2016). Principles of Neurobiology. USA: Garland Science Taylor & Francis Group.

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