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  • Writer's pictureTash Sekar Goodman

The Science behind Deep Breathing

...and how it helps us calm down

Our bodies have what is called the autonomic nervous system. This system automatically regulates heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and lots of other things.

When we experience a stressful situation, our nervous system kicks in this autonomic ‘fight or flight’ response which is also knows as the ‘sympathetic’ response. This response is automatic, and it controls how much cortisol and adrenaline is released into your system. It increases your heart rate, breathing rate, your hands may start to sweat, your stomach clenches up or your voice may start to shake a little. These are all physical manifestations of anxiety.

However, our brilliant and wise body has a counterbalancing force called the parasympathetic system and this is our body’s natural way of slowing down and creating a sense of calm and safety. It’s called this because as your body starts to relax form that fight and flight response, other systems in your body which had been temporarily switched off like digestion, these come back online and start functioning normally again. So breathing slowly automatically turns your immune system back on and you’re able to relax and calm down.

So your body naturally has these two states automatically. It may seem that it is out of your control, but over time we can teach our bodies to kick off that parasympathetic response and to do that you first need to know about your vagus nerve.

SUMMARY: If you brain thinks you’re in a dangerous situation, whether that’s a tiger attacking you or public speaking your body might trigger that fight or flight response. Once that dangerous situation is resolved and your body knows that you are safe, your body triggers the parasympathetic response through the vagus neve.

What is the Vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve on the nervous system, and it does two very important things:

  1. First, it can trigger that parasympathetic response out of ‘fight & flight’ into ‘rest & digest’

  2. It also transmits signals in both directions – it can send information from your brain to your body about whether to be stressed or relaxed and it can also send information from your body to your brain whether to be stressed or relaxed

So, when we practice these bodily calming techniques, we actually send a message along the vagus nerve from our body to our brain saying that things are ok and that we are safe and that in turn calms our stress and anxiety.

So here is a body calming technique that will help you send these calming signals from your body to your brain and better help you regulate your emotions in stressful situations.

What is vagal tone?

Vagal tone is a measure of how string your parasympathetic response is and indicates how good your nervous system is at calming down. Just like muscle tome in your arm would indicate how much you exercise your arm, vagal tome is a measure of how much you use your parasympathetic nervous system and how strong it is.

To start, first I’m going to show you how to feel your vagal tone and you’ll be doing this by noticing your heart rate variability. Find your pulse on your wrist by placing your index finger and your middle finger on top of the wrist area. You should be able to feel your heart beating. Focus on your breathing – breathing in and out very slowly. Pay attention to what happens to your heart rate when you breathe in and when you breathe out.

Practice this on your own five times.

Did you notice that when you breathe in your heart rate increases and when you breathe out slowly your heart rate slows down? For people that have strong vagal tone, their heart rate slows down even more in the our breath than people that have weaker vagal tone. Just like exercising your arm muscles, you can exercise your vagal tone with deep breathing to strengthen it. Higher vagal tone leads to better general health. It leads to better blood sugar regulation, better digestion, lower blood pressure. Most importantly it improves emotional stability and resilience. Lower vagal tone is associated with mood instability, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, inflammation and many more.

Therefore, deep breathing helps with lowering your stress and anxiety and triggers your parasympathetic response through the vagus nerve. You may notice that you feel yourself relax when you do it, or that your eyes start to soften, or your jaw unclenches, and this is all inked to how deep breathing and vagal tone affect the vagus nerve. So, practicing deep breathing and especially those long slow out breaths can help soothe that stress response and help you get better at kicking in that calming parasympathetic response.

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