July 18, 2023
To understand how breathing can change our mood, outlook and stop us from burning out, we first have to understand the basic principles of the nervous system. The ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) is the network that controls our "fight ot flight" (Sympathetic) and "rest and digest" (Parasympathetic) systems. These are regulated by the Vagus nerve.
Think of the Vagus nerve as a braking system. When we are in danger or alerted to action, the Vagus nerve lifts the foot off the brake pedal and sympathetic arousal is increased. This is useful if you are in danger - if a car is speeding towards you, the vagus nerve swiftly lifts the brake, activating your Sympathetic Nervous System: your pupils dilate, blood rushes to your muscles and your body is prepared for action.
Our problem in modern life is that small triggers now activate the sympathetic side of our nervous system. Mobile phones, busy roads, shouting strangers. Our bodies are in constant high alert in the modern world, without enough parasympathetic balance. Perpetual states of alert create higher levels of cortisol, leaving us frazzled and stressed. It can also stop us from switching off and getting sufficient quality rest.
Branches of the Vagus nerve are directly linked to our respiratory system. Every breath has an emotion (which you may know from meditation practice). When the Sympathetic Nervous System is stimulated (i.e. being scared, panicked or even excited), our breath becomes short and shallow. When our Parasympathetic Nervous System is in control (i.e. being relaxed and happy), the breath moves towards the belly.
Humans are the only known creatures able to reverse engineer our breath to influence our state, and science has proven that we can manipulate our emotions by changing our breathing. When you are stressed, take a few slow controlled breaths. When tired, breathing with intent can provide energy and focus.
Here are 2 breathing exercises to reduce stress and anxiety.
1. The Long Breath
An extended exhale is the fastest way to tell your body that all is well. Modify as you want/need, the Long breath could be simple as a 5-count inhale through the nose, and a 10-count exhale through pursed lips. Extending your exhale increases parasympathetic signal, and the body responds by reducing the amount of cortisol in our system. Repeat this a few times and try to relax your shoulders on each exhale.
2. The Triangle Breath
This breathing pattern features a pause after the inhale. For example, you can try a 4-count inhale, a 4-count hold and an 8-count exhale. Similar to the Long breath, you inhale through the nose and exhale with pursed lips. Adding the pause in your breath preoccupies your busy mind with a simple, calming and rhythmic activity, signaling to the body that you are in control.
Give breathwork a try in the Breathonics app and let us know how you get on!