If you’ve ever experienced fear, anxiety, or restlessness, someone likely told you to just take deep breaths in and out. If you meditate or do yoga, you know that deep and steady breathing is transformative. Breathing is just so simple, and yet it works wonders. But how?   

Breathing is a remarkable phenomenon. Like our digestion or our heartbeats, it functions without us even making an effort. But unlike other systems in the body, we have the capacity to change it at will. You can make a conscious decision to sigh, gasp, or hold your breath at any given moment.   

Scientists are getting a better grasp on how closely connected all the different parts of the body are. This year, it was discovered that breathing can actually have a direct influence over the brain’s neurons. Through observing mice, scientists were able to learn more about a part of the brain known as the respiratory pacemaker.

A bundle of neurons located in the brainstem, the respiratory pacemaker is also connected to those parts of the brain that trigger fear and arousal. The respiratory pacemaker, it was discovered, appears to “spy” on our breathing and react appropriately. When our breathing quickens due to stress or fright, it alerts the arousal center and the brain responds in kind, sometimes producing excess feelings of anxiety. Scientists concluded that by slowing down our breathing, we can prevent all those alarm bells in our brain from being sounded (thus putting a halt on spiraling anxiety).

This why the command to just “take a deep breath” is so spectacular. While you can’t always control how you initially react to a stressful situation, you can control your breathing.

With further research, the scientists who conducted this study are aiming to understand the nuances of breathing even more. By learning how breathing directly influences our brain (and thus our emotions), they hope to apply it to therapies that treat depression and stress. Pretty cool, huh?