Our body always strives to keep itself balanced, by activating many biological mechanisms. Although we may not regard our respiratory system as a key player in maintaining our inner balance, it does have a major role in achieving it. Once you understand how breathing influences your nervous system, you will be able to practice effective techniques that enhance relaxation in real-time while also even strengthening your resistance to stress, for the long run.

Boaz Mizrahi May 19, 2020

Many of us see a direct connection between breathing exercises and relaxation. But let’s just consider this notion for a moment – what exactly constitutes breathing exercises? And how do they affect our state of relaxation? Afterall, everyone knows how to breathe, and deep breathing also happens when our body is under enormous stress, so why are breathing exercises associated with achieving relaxation and the relief of stress?

It seems the answer is right in front of us. In Eastern traditions, breathing exercises have been taught for thousands of years. But what is it that happens to our body when we breathe a certain way, and how does this gas-exchanging biology occurring in our lungs actually contribute to relaxation? The answer is found behind our eyes, in the lower-central part of our brain. This is the starting point of a complex communication system, linking between most of our brain’s internal organs. Its scientific name is the Vagus Nerve.

Small, unnoticed stressors are constantly at work in the background

Generally speaking, from a biological standpoint our body has two operational modes: relaxed and stressed. When we are relaxed, we have a low pulse rate, normal blood pressure, and slow breathing. Additional parameters are calibrated in their default state. But, when we are under immense stress – in fight-or-flight response – our heart rate soars, the breathing speeds up, and blood pressure skyrockets along with all our other vitals, which either rise or fall. It can be seen as an emergency state of the body, reacting to the level of anxiety that it thinks it’s in. Our control system – the brain – shifts aside any activity or system that is not critical to the immediate survival of the body, and directs all resources to the specific mechanisms that can help the body survive in this stressful situation. For example, under pressure, our digestion system shuts down, including the spleen, liver, and additional internal organs.

This division between the two modes of existence is also apparent in our nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for relaxation and rest, and the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for stress and anxiety. The vagus nerve is the communication system that activates the parasympathetic system, and as Amanda Arnold explains in The Cut, it seems that by taking deep, long breaths, we can stimulate this specific nerve, which in turn ignites the parasympathetic system, and it puts our body in a relax mode.

Dr. Tanya Eliot, from the New York Medical Center, says that by default, the body should be relaxed, but this is a challenge in our modern world. We are continuously exposed to small stress factors that keep our body’s stress-response system alert, even at some small level, and it is always in active mode. Arnold lists some of these ‘subtle’ stressors: “long work-commute times, work conflicts, and lack of time for social interactions”. Eventually, over time, the accumulated effect on our body is exhaustion, because the it never enters into relaxed mode.

What is it that makes us breathe in a way that is stress-related, and how can we use
breathing exercises to activate the vagus nerve?

While our attention is mostly directed at reducing stress, Dr. Esther Strasburg from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, claims it is more effective to work on our internal system – which means activating our vagus nerve. She illustrates her idea with an example from driving a car, describing the two options we have to slow down: we can wither take our foot off the gas, which is like coping with the stress factors, or – and this is a lot more effective – we can hit the brake, which parallels to activating the parasympathetic system. And this, she explains, can be done by breathing-in deeply.

When you take a deep breath, a large amount of oxygen enters the body, more than the usual amount. This stream of oxygen-enriched blood flows straight to the brain, informing it that the body is in proper functioning mode and there is no longer any danger. This way the brain can relax, and by extension the entire body, too. A lack of oxygen is the most dominant cause of stress for your brain and body, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a life-threatening low level of oxygen, because even the slightest lower oxygen levels immediately trigger the brain its anxiety time. If we try and link oxygen to the stressors listed above, it doesn’t really have a lot to do with them, but enriching the blood and brain with oxygen trumps any other factor the brain relies on for determining which system to activate. The entire process is somewhat more complex, since our body’s biology is never dependent on one isolated reaction. The oxygen-rich blood stream that comes along with deep breaths are interconnected with many additional physiological processes, and all of these come together to affect our overall condition. Among other things that can bring us to relax, Strasburg suggests lowering our blood pressure and activating alpha waves in our brain, which are related to relaxation.

Going back to breathing the way children do

The bonus is, that the stimuli for deep breaths and the vagus nerve are effective for the long run. Dr. Katherine Rosa, from the Harvard School of Medicine, says that repeated deep-breathing exercises done under relatively low stress, forms a type of ‘baseline’ in our brain that is associated with stress. Because these factors do not ignite the flight-or-flight response into full swing – unlike what happens in case of an injury, for example – we have the opportunity to lower their impact. The deep breaths we take signal something similar to this, to the brain: “the external stimuli you are now receiving does not constitute danger, and to prove this, here is a large amount of oxygen for you to use freely.”

Rosa even claims that we are influenced by stressors that are totally invisible. Also, our typical breathing should not be done from the chest.“If you ever watch children sleep, they all breathe from the belly and not the chest. This relaxed state is the more normal way to breathe”. As she explains, deep breaths from the stomach are the best way to spark the vagus nerve.

And this is the answer to the question – what are breathing exercises? We change the area in our body where our lungs expand, and this in itself causes our breathing to be relaxed again. Rosa shares a simple technique for understanding how to breath from our belly. “If you are not familiar with belly breathing, try this exercise: sit in a chair, lean forward, and place your elbows on your knees. Then breathe naturally. This position forces you to breathe from the belly, so you know what the sensation feels like”.

The doctors interviewed on this topic recommend practicing deep breathing several times every day. It is a free, unlimited resource that is at our disposal at all times, enabling us to create a relaxing reality for ourselves. Breathing is not only a function of keeping our body alive, but also a tool that gives us quality living.

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