Have you ever had this experience – you’re becoming stressed or agitated and someone (possibly yourself) tells you to relax and take a deep breath? Have you ever wondered why people say that? How does deep breathing calm the brain and body?
You know that your brain controls your body, but it turns out that your body can also affect your state of mind. Many of your body’s signals come from your gut – deep in your intestines where many emotions, such as stress, fear, and anxiety manifest. Ever heard the expression “Gut feeling?” Your gut often tells your brain how to feel. So how do these two entities communicate?
Meet the vagus nerve.
The vagus is one of the largest nerves in the body. It runs from your gut to your brainstem, with many branches that touch most of your major organs, including the heart. The vagus nerve is responsible for telling the body that everything is okay.
Let’s get a little more technical. Your body regulates stress thorough two counteracting systems – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). These are both part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which means that they are controlled without you having to do anything. The ANS is responsible for all your involuntary muscle movements – the heart, intestines, and your lungs.
Your SNS is responsible for your “Flight or Fight” response any time you encounter anything stressful, whether it’s an attacking bear, a first date, or speaking in public. Your PNS does the opposite, it tells your body to relax, rest, and calm down. The vagus nerve the control center for your PNS. It stops stress by using neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and GABA to slow down your heart rate, blood pressure, and other organs. These two sides of your ANS are in constant flux, working together to maintain the homeostasis in your body.
When your SNS is in charge, your brain becomes flushed with stress hormones like cortisol. While some stress is useful – it can light the fire you need to complete a project or, you know, run from an attacking bear – too much of it can be harmful. Chronic stress can mean elevated cortisol levels, which can cause depression and heart disease, and can get in the way of learning, memory, your immune system, and more.
Luckily, your vagus nerve is there to keep that stress in check. And, just like a muscle, the more you exercise your vagus nerve, the stronger it gets.
You can activate your vagus nerve by breathing deeply from your diaphragm. (See, this is where the “take a deep breath” advice comes in). Whenever you feel yourself becoming overly stressed. Stimulate your vagus nerve to calm your body by:
1) Slowing down your breath 2) Breathing more deeply and from the belly (instead of your chest) 3) Making your exhale longer than your inhale
Try it now. Take a deep breath into your belly. Hold it. Now let it out. Whether or not you noticed, your heart rate increased ever so slightly when you inhaled, and decreased when you exhaled. In other words, you can use your breathing to temporarily override your autonomic nervous system. In this way, you can slow and even reverse the negative effects of stress.
Today’s fast-paced culture is full of stressful situations. These likely occur on a more regular basis than bear attacks did in the past, which means that humans today are over-exercising their sympathetic nervous system, while underutilizing their vagus nerves and parasympathetic nervous systems. Many people seek yoga and meditation to offset their stressful lives. These meditative practices are centered around, you guessed it, deep and focused breathing.
The more you can focus on deep breathing throughout your stressful day, the more you can exercise your body’s calming mechanism. The more you can exercise your body’s calming mechanism, the more prepared you’ll be for future stressful situations. [This is why having a regular reminder to breathe, like Spire, is helpful. ;)]
[Images by Moyan Brenn]