The Autonomic Nervous System is our bodies’ way of creating homeostasis day in and day out to function at our optimum ability especially when confronted with change and challenge. Whether we are rushing to catch a flight or taking a nap, it is the responsibility of the autonomic system to either amp up our heart rate or down-regulate our nervous system respectively. For years it was believed impossible to intentionally manipulate, hence the labeling “autonomic” referring to its automatic and independent function. Located in the hypothalamus of the brain, it is responsible for impacting our drives (sex, hunger, thirst). Additionally, the hypothalamus delivers feedback for the control of our emotions (fear, anger, pleasure), our water, salt and hormonal regulations, as well as our heart rate. Amazingly, all of this responsibility is housed in something the size of a pea!
Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic
Two branches make up the autonomic system, sympathetic and parasympathetic. (There is also the enteric system which controls the gastrointestinal system, often considered a 3rd branch, and sometimes considered it’s own independent system entirely.) The sympathetic nervous system is what we consider to be the “fight or flight” response. It is what conditions our body to flee from danger to maintain survival. When confronted with threat, the body must act quickly by increasing the heart and respiration rates to flush the muscles with blood (in order to run quickly), boost mental alertness, as well as dilate the pupils. During the times of hunting & gathering, this system was imperative to run from the tiger to save our life. However if the threat is that of emotional stress, the sympathetic system reacts the same. It is an all or nothing reaction and cannot distinguish between the threat of a hungry animal and sitting in a traffic jam.
The role of the parasympathetic system is to regulate the excitation of the sympathetic. In essence, its’ function is to restore a sense of calm, and is alternately referred to as our “rest and digest” system. Through stimulation of the hypothalamus, the parasympathetic response helps to lower the blood pressure, and slow the heart rate, among many other things. What is wonderful is that just by stimulating one relaxation response, the entire sympathetic system will respond and lead you to becoming stress-free.
Chest Breathing and Belly Breathing
If you primarily breathe in the upper portion of your lungs, known as clavicular breathing, chances are, you are primarily living in your sympathetic nervous system. Clavicular breathing occurs by lifting the shoulders and collarbones and contracting the abdominal muscles in order to quickly bring in air. While this is good in emergency situations, in the long run, it exhausts the body and can lead to anxiety, stress, sleep disorders, hyperventilation, asthma, and panic attacks. Shallow breath not only can be a result of stress, it can be the cause!
Belly breathing is the most sedative breath. Also known as the diaphragmatic breath, it entails the expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle housed near the bottom of the ribcage separating the heart, lungs, and ribs from the abdominal cavity. It is the primary breathing muscle and when we are relaxed, the diaphragm contracts enlarging the thoracic cavity and creating suction to pull more air into the lungs. If we are in a constant state of stress, the diaphragm loses the mobility to contract deeply, and becomes stiff forcing the breath to move higher up into the chest (clavicular breath).
How to Create Relaxation
One of the primary intentions of yoga is to down-regulate the nervous system and induce a state of calm. We have all been there, a savasana that left us blissful and smiling all the way home. You may have thought it was simply because you sweated, or the physical challenge of the asanas, but what truly made the difference, was your quality of breath!
1. Uddiyana Bandha
This is an abdominal lock that stretches the diaphragm to create relaxation. Performed by exhaling all of the breath out, then taking a false thoracic breath, as though you were sucking in your stomach without taking in any air. It is a pulling in and lifting of the abdomen. It can be seen here on Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune Up DVD
2. Yoga Tune Up Balls
These miracle workers in the shape of a rubber ball can melt away your shoulder and upper back tension and leave you feeling refreshed. Plus, you can carry them with you everywhere!!
This is the science of breath control. There are many ways to play with both the intake and output of breath, One of the quickest ways to down-regulate the nervous system is by elongating your exhale. Try inhaling for a count of 4, and exhaling for a count of 6. Over time elongating your exhale count to 8 or even 10. After a few cycles of this breath-work, lie on the floor is savasana and witness your own complete relaxation.
Meditation can be simple! Do not be intimidated by the pictures of Yoga Journal yogis sitting in full lotus position or by the ashrams bellowing chants. Simply find a comfortable place to sit, preferably with your spine elongated. If you have tight hips, prop yourself up onto a pillow or block, or even lean yourself up against a wall! Then attempt to empty your mind of thoughts and focus on your breath. Follow the streamline of inhales to their exhales. Some enjoy using a the mantra “Let Go”. On the inhale silently repeating “Let” and on the exhale, “Go”. Meditation does not need to look a certain way. It is merely the act of stillness and witnessing your mind.
The next time you are confronted with a challenging situation whether it is a difficult conversation, a yoga practice, or a work deadline, pay attention to how you are breathing. Attempt to induce belly breathing and maintain it while navigating your way through.
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