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“Stop and take a deep breath” makes more sense than ever before, thanks to a new study. Let’s catch up with the latest on how inhaling through the nose and concentrating on breathing is hugely beneficial. It can be a welcome path to bounce back from a bad day or from real trauma. It may come across at first as simplistic, but to focus on breathing helps us find a resilience that we never thought was in us?

On an oddly related subject, in this last column, readers learned about how Riverhead Town Hall habitually looks the other way when it comes to developers’ clear cutting of vast areas of trees and woodlands here. There was recently a glimmer of hope when the town board proposed sensible restrictions, but a developer’s lawyer phoned in a threat to sue, though he had no standing to do so, as the town well knew. Yet the town board pathetically dropped the proposal and ran for cover. Thus the next woodland casualty will be right along Edwards Avenue, as this revolting pattern continues, and the people’s opposition be damned.

All this happens at a time when personal meditation in wooded areas and among trees is more than ever shown to be good for the soul. But let’s get into more basics than that — how can everyday people with little free time partake of this growing knowledge of mindfulness?

A group of Northwestern Medicine scientists used new and updated equipment enabling them literally to connect (with electrodes and image-making) to the brains of a diverse group of volunteers.

They discovered how nasal breathing creates and organizes electrical brain signals. These signals go from the nose to the brain’s olfactory “smell” cortex. There, these signals travel in the brain even farther — the nasal breathing that reaches the brain cortex then moves right on to signaling and then “coordinating” our memory. It helps us significantly when these brain regions more smoothly coordinate. All that from a nasal inhale!

And here’s the key: that inhale, when done deeply and slowly — further enhances the benefits for those brain parts. It does more — in fact, these traveling signals then reach the brain regions relating to our emotion and behavior.

This new study confirms how better coordination among these brain parts immediately calms us, and at the same time helps us better to think and then to make far more sensible choices. Or as the Northwestern researchers put it, “In this way, we can control and optimize brain function using our in-breath, to have faster, more accurate emotional discrimination and recognition, as well as gain better memory.”

Stated in simpler terms: our in-breath is a remote control for our brains, with direct impact on the electrical signals that communicate with our memory and our emotions. These are the “synchronous effects” of nasal breathing.

Consider what else these scientists learned about in-breathing and memory. They had 60 volunteers view images and later recall them. They found that memory for these images was much better if they first encountered and encoded these images during an in-breath through the nose. This didn’t happen during mouth-breathing, nor with an out-breath.

So these scientists tell us that the act of slow, steady breathing activates the calming part of our nervous system when we wish to be more still and focused, reduces the heart rate, and reduces feelings of stress and anxiety. Is this bad news for the big pharma companies who peddle all manner of profitable drugs to calm their customers? The alcohol industry won’t be pleased with this news either.

This brings us to “mindful breathing,” something that anyone can do, that combines the mental component with the breathing component — that is, trying to focus as we breath on the body, mind and breath together. Being careful not to try too hard, concentrate only on the here and now — expel what’s on your agenda, what lies ahead for the day, just for a short while. Then this newly appreciated power of breathing will really serve to regulate emotions and help us to reach a level of clarity.

This settling of the mind proves to be the ideal path to coping with anxiety and stress. And it is an effective treatment for our consuming and often harmful addiction to always have to be doing. And for our increasingly vulnerable youth, where anxiety, and diagnoses for depression and suicidal ideation rapidly climb, introducing them to mindfulness would be an effective call to action.

Here is where the Riverhead, Shoreham Wading River and other school districts should examine a wealth of information from a 2016 publication, the “Handbook of Mindfulness in Education.” This excellent guide for educators is a well documented, how-to for mindfulness training for teachers, with a developmental model for stress, coping and everyday resilience. It covers “mindful school leadership,” using Eastern philosophy to organize a school for student success. It also sets out a structure that promotes “self-regulation” for adolescents. Imagine adolescents learning how to self-regulate! There’s also a program in the guidebook for teaching elementary and middle school students to master both “mind and moment.”

Combining the more recent Northwestern study’s findings with the outstanding instructions found in the Handbook on Mindfulness in Education offers valuable insight. As a detailed yet simple understanding of in-breath mindfulness spreads more widely, might we see a surging resilience in a vast number of our youth? Will the practice of in-breathing reverse the alarming trend among them of depression and the inability to cope? Can this in turn steer them away from smoking, drinking, drugs, vaping and the crippling addictions that go with it?

Taking a deep breath, and all that goes with it, opens a path for the rest of us as well, as an alternative to the addiction of always having to be doing something, of striving to multi-task and to make sense of lives that grow more and more disorganized. To think that all along, the key to mindfulness is a deep breath away, and that all its benefits wait inside of us.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg