How many times in your life have you been reminded or guided to “just take a deep breath” in a moment of panic, frustration, anger, pain, etc? As reassuring (or sometimes annoying) as this suggestion can be, there is a fundamental truth to this piece of advice on how we can calm ourselves down and sooth our nervous system in times of distress or strong emotional upwelling.
You see, our breath is unique from other visceral bodily systems in that it is both automatic and also within the realm of our conscious control. Fun fact: on average, we take over 20,000 breaths per day; most of that time without thought or deliberate control directed toward the process. Yet our capacity to consciously modulate the breath is what allows us to influence the nervous system and have an intentional impact upon our emotional state. In this way, your breath could be considered a free and readily available therapeutic salve.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located below the heart and lungs and above the internal organs. When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward, causing the abdominal wall to swell as the breath is drawn into the lungs. Upon exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and the lungs deflate. Sounds simple enough, right?
Though it might seem to be a rather simplistic process on the surface, the effect of breath mechanics reaches further beyond just the musculature involved. Consider that we are a complex being with neural pathways, circulatory networks and connective tissue reaching throughout the entire body, all of which contribute to the interconnectivity of the whole.
Now consider that beyond the benefit of nourishing your cells with oxygen, the functioning, patterning and movement of your breath also impacts your emotional state. This has much to do with the direct influence that the breath has on the vagus nerve, which helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the branch of the Central Nervous System (CNS) that helps calm you down and diminish sympathetic nervous system dominance (the fight or flight response).
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, originating in the medulla and wandering down through the throat, esophagus, lungs and into the viscera or internal organs. In fact, the nerve’s given name (from the Latin word vagus, meaning to wander) implies its vagabond-like tendencies to wander and wind along its path. With the understanding that our nerves are a conduit of communication to and from the brain, we can see that as the vagus nerve pierces the diaphragm through the esophageal hiatus and reaches toward and into the viscera (the internal organs), it serves as a principal communication channel between the enteric nervous system (associated with “gut feelings”) and the central nervous system (the central command center.)
During the process of breathing, the movement of the diaphragm influences the nervous system by stimulating and sending nerve impulses to the brain. When we breathe quickly, in a shallow way, or with the movement of the breath primarily in the chest and collarbone area, we can illicit a flight/flight response. When we breathe slowly and deeply, recruiting the diaphragm as the prime mover of respiration, that elongation of the breath stimulates the “rest and digest” response.
With stress levels at epic proportions, there is an increasing need for effective tools to neutralize anxiety. One thing is for certain—our lives are jam-packed, even flooded, with constant information via the media, cell phones, computers, bosses, family, friends, etc., and very little time is spent telling the nervous system that all is well. Very little time is spent in that state of “calm, cool and collected.” The breath is the easiest way to begin to give your body and brain a big dose of ahhhhhhhhh.
Though there are various modes of breath and pranayama exercises that serve different purposes, diaphragmatic breathing (also called abdominal breathing) produces the most sedating effect on the body—and breathing is free! While it is not the complete solution to stress management, developing a consistent conscious breathing practice creates an imprint on the nervous system, making the “rest and digest” state of being more readily accessible when we need a calm, focused approach to the challenges we face and the emotional upwelling we experience in our lives. At the very least, it’s a very handy tool to have in our self-care toolbox.