by Elissa Dawn Strutton
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.
Check out the video below with Jill Miller as she teaches this foundational practice essential to the process of establishing healthy breath mechanics and to soothe the nervous system.
Here are some additional suggestions and strategies to consider when attempting to recalibrate your state:
Bring your awareness to your breathing patterns throughout the day. When at rest or sitting at your desk, do you breathe primarily in the chest area or do you feel the breath movement in the abdomen as well? If you put one hand on the abdomen and the other on the chest, which hand moves first as you inhale? Ideally, we want the hand on the abdomen to shift first at the onset of the inhale. Set up a reminder system such as stickers strategically placed or an alarm on your phone to trigger the habit of checking in. When you are prompted, pause and take 2-3 deep abdominal breaths.
Notice your posture. Breathing is most efficient with neutral positioning of the pelvis and the ribcage aligned directly above with the spine in neutral as well. There is much more information and nuances to explore on this subject alone. For the sake of brevity here, do your best not to slouch or tilt your pelvis too much toward the extreme of one direction or the other (anteriorly or posteriorly). If you are unsure about your posture, seek out an evaluation from a professional. It’s quite informative and worth the investment for your overall health and well-being.
Shape your Breath. Practice modulating your breath patterning to create an equality of length of the inhale and exhale. Count using whatever method works best for you to breathe in for X counts and exhale for X counts. When at rest (such as when you are preparing to settle in for the night), gradually begin to extend the exhale longer than the inhale by 1, 2, or 4 counts.
Hum. The vibration in the throat region created by humming stimulates the vagus nerve. Try inhaling to fill the lungs to capacity and then humming a continuous sound for the duration of the exhale.
Get on the Coregeous ball! Rolling out the abdomen with this pliable ball not only cultivates a resiliency of the abdominal wall tissues to help increase breath capacity, but the massage of the internal organs activates the vagus nerve as well. See how to do it here with Dr. Danny Mata.
Practice. Keep in mind that changing or improving breath patterns and developing healthy vagal tone is a practice and requires commitment and consistency. We are all a work in progress. And we can begin (or continue) with the very next breath.
I hope this has offered you new approaches to help develop breath awareness, increase lung capacity and stimulate the vagus nerve to have you calmer on the freeway, truly present in that important meeting and perhaps more willing and able to “just take a deep breath” in the moments when you need it most.
Elissa Dawn Strutton, E-RYT, RYT 500 is a Certified Integrated Yoga Tune Up teacher. Committed to her craft, dedicated to continued learning, humbled by the vastness of what is yet to be discovered, and passionate about yoga and movement, Elissa wants to help you move and live with grace, ease, integrity and purpose. Her teaching incorporates breath work, focused intention, traditional and restorative asana, dynamic and conscious corrective movements, core awareness exercises, and Yoga Tune Up therapy ball work in an engaging format for a truly unique, embodied experience. Classes are gentle and restorative or active, challenging and dynamic; sometimes a blend of both. No matter what the theme or the focus, her offerings remain accessible to all as she supports her students with effective cueing, skillful adjustments and posture modifications.