During stressful situations, controlling your breath is a direct way to influence and regulate your autonomic nervous system.
I continue to be intrigued and amazed by the natural yet powerful capacity of the breath to regulate my autonomic nervous system. Discovery and education of my breath helped me become conscious of it, observe it, befriend it, use it to my advantage, and call upon it in many situations in life. My breath has now become my Go-To support tool for mental, emotional, and physical health and well-being.
There are many moments in life when your breathing pattern changes. Exercising and sleeping may be obvious ones but there are many more times throughout the day when your breathing pattern changes that you may not be aware of.
Breathing is innately linked to the involuntary responses of your autonomic nervous system. Being at the core of everything you do in life, the autonomic nervous system is reflected in many aspects of your life.
How? Well, your autonomic nervous system plays a function in how you perform at work; how you engage in relationships; how well you sleep at night; how well your digestive system functions; and how you respond (or react) in the face of stress.
Have you noticed when you get a fright and suddenly experience strong fear or anxiety that your breathing pattern changes?
You may notice your breathing speeds up as your lungs pump harder and faster than usual and you may hear your heart beating loud in your chest. This involuntary response is your autonomic nervous system detecting a threat which provokes a flood of adrenaline needed for mobilisation, also known as the fight or flight response (i.e. fight the fear, or run away from the fear). The fight response may not only be reflected in a physical fight but rather arguing, or conflict, whereas the flight response can be physically fleeing but also pacing, avoiding, or distracting yourself from the fear.
Alternatively, you may take a sharp inhale of air and hold your breath, or your breath becomes so shallow you don´t notice it. Known as the freeze response, your nervous system shuts down metabolism and digestion as your body preserves energy, making as few movements as possible (including breathing), so that it can continue to keep your body alive whilst experiencing the overwhelming physical symptoms of the fear. You may experience numbness, sleepiness, disconnection, and a feeling of being alone.
It is important to note that when your nervous system detects fear or anxiety, it may well be from a real threat of physical danger (e.g. “I am going to be physically hurt”), or a perceived threat about what might happen (“If I don´t do this right my colleagues will think I am inadequate”), or even the experience of fear or anxiety might have originated from a single thought or a series of thoughts (i.e. “I haven´t started that work project yet. Will I even get it finished in time? How will my boss react if I don´t get it finished? I might lose my job.”).
If you are a person who regularly experiences fear or anxiety from a wandering mind with incessant worrying, self-doubt and/or criticism, your nervous system will prompt many changes in your physical, emotional, and mental body several times a day causing disruptions to breathing, digestion, sleep and relationships including work, family, and love.
Your nervous system is your responsibility!
Learning how to notice the signs and read the cues of your own autonomic nervous system will help you notice when you become ungrounded or become overwhelmed before it gets to the point of overwhelm. In those moments, you can tune into your breath to help guide your nervous system to a grounded sense of safety and connection, avoiding panic and overwhelm.
Taking intentional slow deep breaths and elongating the out-breaths for several minutes, functionally reduces your heart rate, regulates your breathing, and helps to reset the autonomic nervous system activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the state responsible for safety and relaxation.
Nervous systems feed off other nervous systems – whether that is with your family, friends, colleagues, or clients. When you take responsibility to regulate your own nervous system, it will be reflected in the nervous systems of others around you.
My top breathing techniques to regulate your nervous system:
Box Breathing by inhaling for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 4 seconds, exhaling for 4 seconds, and holding the breath for 4 seconds. Repeating for 5 minutes (or longer if possible) to regulate the heart rate, increase oxygen to the brain, reduce any anxiety, and increase focus and attention.
Coherent Breathing by inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 4 seconds (or increasing to 5, 6, 7 ,8 seconds so long as inhales and exhales are the same). Practising for 5 minutes several times throughout the day creates a pause in the day to consciously regulate your breathing, reduce and regulate your heart rate, focus your attention on the present moment, and slow down your autonomic nervous system.
Extended Exhale by inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds in the evening for 5 minutes (or longer if possible) to slow down your heart rate, reduce blood pressure and relax your muscles to aid sleep. Longer exhales enable the Vagus nerve to send a signal to your brain activating the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and digest).
4-7-8 Breathing by breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds. Practising for 5 minutes (or longer if possible) regulates the breath, reduces anxiety, and can help with sleeping.