Anxiety, Breath, and The Brain-Body Connection

Quick note before you begin. Human Unlimited has no commercial relationship with James Nestor or Wim Hof mentioned in this post. It's through our personal experiences with both here at HU that we wanted to bring attention to these powerful and scientifically-backed topics as it relates to dealing with anxiety.      

As we continue to dig deeper into the art of breathing, breath-work, and the Breath Man himself, James Nestor, we’ve found some fascinating stories and information to share with you - especially in the space of anxiety and those who struggle with it.

18% of Americans suffer with anxiety or panic, and that number continues to grow. While things like mindfulness and Xanax have been prescribed to help manage anxiety for years, there’s another area we can start looking at to find relief - what James Nestor calls ‘the art of holding our breath.’

The art of holding our breath starts with a journey through the brain, to the center of the temporal lobes where two almond size nodes are located called the amygdala (ah-mig-da-lah). The amygdala are pretty important to our everyday life and wellbeing. They help us regulate emotion and they’re also responsible for producing things like fear and anxiety in our brains and bodies.

If you suffer with anxiety, chances are you don’t see fear or anxiety as good things, but fear and anxiety, while they can be frustrating, are also what tell us not to get into the car with that stranger and what tell us to stay away from poisonous snakes and spiders. In this way, the amygdala and the fear and anxiety they produce are things that help us stay alive, make responsible decisions, and go about our everyday lives.

In his New York Times Bestseller Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art, author James Nestor references a few studies that outlined the results of the amygdala not being present in the brain, and the outcomes were disastrous. First, in 1968, Dr. Arthur Kling removed the amygdala from a group of monkeys and released them back onto their wild island to record how the monkeys would behave missing this vital part of their brain. Some starved to death, others drowned, others were killed because they no longer feared their predators. Within two weeks, all of Dr. Kling’s monkeys were dead.

Back in the United States, researchers were working with a patient only known by the initials “S.M.,” who suffered a genetic condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease. As S.M. grew older and began entering her teen years, her sense of fear began to diminish, as the disease destroyed her amygdala. S.M. could see, feel, hear, and taste like others, had a normal IQ, and demonstrated normal levels of memory and perception, but as her sense of fear and anxiety decreased and eventually ceased to exist at all, she began making reckless decisions and ending up in dangerous situations. From asking a strange man who attempted to rape her for a ride home to allowing her kitchen cupboards to go bare because she had no fear of going hungry, S.M. demonstrated that the amygdala proved essential to the experience of life as both monkey and human.

Researchers spent two entire decades using scare tactics to try and evoke a sense of fear in S.M. In 2006, Dr. Justin Feinstein met S.M. and took her in for an experiment of his own. Patients had reported that inhaling a breath of carbon dioxide, even in a small amount, created the feeling of suffocating, which most often resulted in a panic attack. Dr. Feinstein explained to S.M. that ‘the carbon dioxide would not damage her body, her tissues and brain would have plenty of oxygen. She would never be in any danger.’ The book goes on to describe that upon hearing this, S.M. ‘looked the way she always looked: bored.’

S.M. inhaled a small breath of the carbon dioxide and soon began raising her arms, yelling for help, breathing quickly, and was triggered into a panic attack with the one breath. The carbon dioxide was physically triggering some other mechanism in the brain or body, outside of the emotional function of the brain.

This only meant one thing: the research and textbooks were wrong, the amygdala were absolutely not the only “alarm circuit of fear” in the brain and body, there existed another circuit in our bodies, perhaps deeper, perhaps more sensitive, perhaps undiscovered until now, that generated a powerful, extreme sense of danger: the fear and anxiety that comes from the feeling of suffocation. This fear of not being able to take another breath was triggering a panic attack in someone who didn’t have their amygdala, always thought responsible to produce fear and anxiety.

This anxious, fearful, incessant need to take another breath and not being able to is activated by neurons called chemoreceptors, which take us on another deep dive in the brain, located at the base of the brain stem. If you’ve ever wondered what allows some free-divers to hold their breath for up to ten whole minutes underwater: this is it. They’ve trained their chemoreceptors to withstand extreme fluctuations without panic, as the chemoreceptors are incredibly flexible. 

All of this to say that anxiety may not be entirely psychological, an illness of the mind, but in part physiological as well. S.M. had no psychological reason to react to the carbon dioxide experiment with anxiety or panic, yet she suffered an anxiety attack.

This can be good news for those of us who suffer from anxiety. It means by working to learn the art of holding our breath in order to help condition our chemoreceptors, just as the free-divers who can hold their breath for ten minutes without panic do, we can help ourselves in one more way, a physiological way, to find relief from anxiety and panic. There are different forms of breath-work that explore holding your breath. The Wim Hof Method, in particular, is a simplified form that draws inspiration from a variety of practices and has developed quite a following due to its simplicity and endearing and charming founder, Wim Hof.  

Think about it, when we have an anxiety response, the first thing that tends to happen to our breathing is hyperventilation, from mild to potentially severe. Now we know this is actually the worst thing we can do, as we’re increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in our bodies versus oxygen, which in turn layers on an additional level of anxiety as we're triggering the chemoreceptors. We're effectively creating an anxiety double-whammy.   

So that's why breathing is so very important. When anxiety sets in, we need to make an effort to return to proper nose-breathing to make sure we’re getting the benefits of oxygen-rich inhales through the nose. And then second, by conditioning our chemoreceptors through breath-work, we'll be more equipped to deal with increased levels of carbon dioxide in our systems during those times when our proper breathing flies out the window, which it will. 

If you're interested in learning more, we encourage you to read James Nestor's book for starters and visit Wim Hof's website.  Again, we want to mention that Human Unlimited has no commercial relationship with either gentlemen.       

Human Unlimited
Human Unlimited