Written by Nani Waddoups, LPC, NCC
The now ever-present suggestion to “breathe” has become part of our pop culture lexicon as a strategy to slow our racing minds, “reduce stress,” and generally chill out. We hear the message to breathe deeply from yoga teachers, in meditation classes, and on bumper stickers. Occasionally, we may heed the instruction and fill our lungs and let out a long sigh, and note that a deep breath does indeed feel good. Intuitively, our bodies tell us that breathing does do something to move us to a calmer state. But how? And why?
The Nervous System
The breath is part of the body’s nervous system. The nervous system is the communication network that regulates functioning. It is made of three parts:
• The Central Nervous System (the “coordinator” brain and spinal column)
• The Peripheral Nervous System (the “delivery system” branches), and
• The Autonomic (aka Involuntary) Nervous System (automatically regulates key body functions, like blood pressure and heart rate)
To understand the physiological effect of deep breathing, we need to look at the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is made up of two parts: The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Systems.
The Sympathetic Nervous System is what prepares the body for emergencies: the fight/flight/flee response. In a stressful situation, this vigilant system sends out urgent protective instructions: “Speed up the heart rate! Increase blood pressure! Keep blood flowing to the brain! Don’t waste energy on digestion! Dilate the eyes! Adrenal gland: Produce more cortisol! Hair: Stand on alert! Breath: speed up!!”
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is the director of peace, countering the alarm of the emergency alert. The PNS sends the “all clear” memo: the threat is gone. It’s ok to take a deep breath, blood can flow to fingers and toes again, energy can return to non-essential functions like digestion, heart rate can slow, eyes can relax, blood pressure can come down.
Stuck on Alert
While the automatic alert functioning of the Sympathetic Nervous System exists as an evolutionary survival mechanism to react to short-term threats, such as escaping a charging predator, it appears to respond with the same efficacy to long-term moderate stress and anxiety. For a variety of reasons, the SNS alarm system can get stuck in an overactive “ALERT!” mode. Work and fiscal stress, health concerns, relationship tensions, emotional trauma, and the general instability of the world today can appear to the SNS as dramatic threats, and it reacts accordingly. For example, a recently widowed mother who day after day wakes to her fears of fiscal insecurity, loneliness, and single parenthood can begin to experience the same physiological symptoms as if her life was in immediate danger: shortness of breath, heart racing, poor digestion, and after a while, exhaustion. A negative feedback loop can also begin: she feels these symptoms, and begins to believe that she is indeed in danger.
How Breath Can Help
All of the emergency and subsequent “all clear” responses of the Autonomic Nervous System happen automatically, independent of our consciousness. In fact, most of the responses are outside of our conscious control: ever try to get your blood vessels to constrict or your eyes to dilate at will? But one physiological function is in our conscious control. You guessed it: the breath. Breathing bridges the gap between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. By utilizing conscious control of the breath, we can influence the Sympathetic Nervous System. By using our mind and muscles to slow and deepen the breath, we can send the “all clear” message to the Sympathetic System, allowing the body’s functioning to come down from hyper-alert and return to a more relaxed state.
By consciously slowing the breath, we can encourage a more balanced ebb and flow of the two. When the pulse slows and blood flows freely and the mind can interpret these felt senses, then it too can relax. The sources of stress and anxiety do not diminish with deep and slow breathing, but our ability to manage them can increase by willfully turning off our emergency alert system when no significant threats are present.
Keywords: mood and feelings, anxiety, treatment orientation
About the Author: Nani Waddoups, MA, NCC, LPCI, is a Professional Counselor in Portland