Breathing is something we do everyday. It is something we often don’t even need to think about. Perhaps it is because breathing is so basic that it is also so easy to ignore. Have you ever noticed how you breathe when you are feeling completely relaxed? And perhaps how that might be different to when we feel stressed and overwhelmed? Being able to breathe deeply is a sign that our bodies are relaxed. Learning how to engage in relaxation breathing is one of the many ways to calm our bodies down and help us relax.
What’s the fuss about breathing?
When we feel anxious, stressed, or when our bodies perceive threat, our breath speeds up as our body tries to prepare to cope with danger. This tells us that our sympathetic nervous system is being activated. This system is a survival mechanism that helps us react promptly to perceived danger. You may also notice an increased in heart rate, shakiness in your arms and legs, nervous energy, and racing thoughts! Unfortunately, activation of the sympathetic nervous system for prolonged periods of time can lead to wear and tear of our bodies.
Breathing is a simple and effective way to manage stress and our state of mind. It relies on our ability to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming influence. This system is activated during periods of rest, eating, sleeping, and digestion to support our body in recovery and growth.
Okay… so how does breathing work?
Using breathing to relax (such as with diaphragmatic or belly breathing) tells the body that it is safe to relax. Relaxation breathing is a lot deeper and slower than our normal day-to-day breathing and happens in our diaphragms rather than our chest.
A key component of relaxation is the activation of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the most complex of all nerves in our bodies and is vital in helping our bodies rest and digest. It connects the brain to various parts of the body, including our lungs and heart. As our diaphragm fills up with air, the diaphragmatic wall pushes downward, somewhat like a balloon filling up. When the diaphragmatic wall drops, it compresses our organs slightly, which simultaneously pushes against and activates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve then sends a signal to the brain, telling the brain to activate the relaxation response. When this happens, our stress response (i.e. sympathetic nervous system) and all that is associated with it (increased heart rate, nervous energy, shaky limbs) start to alleviate. Repeated diaphragmatic breaths also help our heart rate get more in sync with our breath. Our brain also then releases endorphins, which are chemicals that have a natural calming effect.
Breathing exercises are an excellent way to relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress. Who would have thought something as simple as breathing could affect our whole body. They are also incredibly easy to learn. They can be done whenever needed – no equipment needed! Have a look at our psychologists’ vlogs (insert links) on different ways of practicing breathing exercises and how we can teach them to others. Please do not hesitate to contact us at Cassidy Psychology if you have any questions about why breathing matters and how it works.