A regular meditation practice can go a long way toward managing your brain's internal chatter and helping you feel a little more calm. But when you want to stop racing thoughts right in their tracks, you might just want to stop and hum.
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Yes, you read that right. With a little effort, humming can actually be strategically employed to kick feelings of anxiety to the curb anytime, anywhere. The process is a little different than what you might do while you're, say, cleaning the shower or walking home from work on a sunny day. But not too different!
The practice, called bhramari, is a yogic breathing practice whose name refers to the Indian black bee, since humming makes a buzz-like sound. Like other forms of deep breathing, bhramari sends a physiologic signal to the body that you're not in danger, and that it's OK to relax.
"When we are stressed, we activate the sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, nervous system and our breath automatically becomes short and shallow," explains Pauline Peck, PhD, a Santa Barbara, California-based psychologist and certified trauma-informed yoga teacher. "Taking deep breaths, like in bhramari breathing, allows us to activate the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, system, which eases and calms our nervous system."
Making a humming sound also has the added benefit of massaging the vocal chords, which stimulate the vagus nerve, Peck says. This nerve, which runs from your brain to your colon, is involved in controlling involuntary functions like heart rate and mood. When it's activated, your heart rate starts to slow and you begin to feel more regulated, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
What Are the Benefits of Humming?
Deep breathing exercises like humming serve to slow your heart rate, which can signal a drop in blood pressure. This, in turn, can quiet the body's stress response and help you feel more relaxed, per the Mayo Clinic.
While research on bhramari in particular is limited, the available evidence backs this up. Humming for just five to 10 minutes was shown to be enough to help people feel refreshed and even blissful (really!) as well as enhance focus, according to a review in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine.
It was also found to reduce perceived stress levels over the longer-term and improve sleep quality when performed regularly over the course of six weeks, per a February 2021 International Journal of Physiology study.
The simple act of briefly stepping away from whatever is stressing you out can, in itself, also be helpful. "Taking a break to practice intentional breathing is a good mental reset, giving us a change of scenery, as well as a sense of empowerment as we realize the truth that we are in control of how we respond to stress," Peck says.
How to Practice Humming to Reduce Stress
If you know how to hum, you're already halfway to practicing bhramari. Next time you're feeling anxious or overwhelmed, just:
- Sit or stand comfortably and let your facial muscles relax. Plug your ears with your fingertips.
- Gently inhale through your nose, then exhale slowly while making a "hummmmmm" sound. Let the hum go on for as long as you comfortably can. Pay attention to the sound as you hum, as well as the feeling of the vibrations in your mouth.
- Repeat this cycle four to six times (or more, if you'd like).
You can use bhramari as a tool to feel calmer any time the need strikes. But you'll experience the most noticeable drop in your stress level when you commit to a regular practice — think daily or weekly, says Peck.
"The more we practice intentional, conscious breathing, the better we will be at entering into a state of calm and letting go of whatever isn't serving us in the moment," she says.
- Cleveland Clinic: "5 Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve"
- Mayo Clinic: "Humming Your Way to Relaxation"
- Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine: "Effects of Bhramari Pranayama on health – A systematic review"
- International Journal of Physiology: "Effect of Short-Term Practice of Bhramari Pranayama on Sleep Quality and Perceived Stress in School Students"