The Gift of Breath
I had learned in acting class how to play different characters by just controlling my breath. For example, if I wanted to play a stressed-out mom, I would make my breathing quick and choppy. If I wanted to play a thoughtful person, I would slow my breathing down and speak slowly. Before every performance, I would find a space to practice breathing deeply. This time, it was to manage the nervous energy running through my veins before I set foot on stage. It always worked. We have been given the gift of breath. Yes, it is what keeps us alive, but did you know it is able to physically, mentally, socially and spiritually heal and restore us?
Stress Impacts Our Breathing
I know the words “heal” and “restore” sound nonclinical, but when we learn to breathe again the body has the power to bring about some of its own healing. What do you mean breathe again? If we are alive, aren’t we all breathing? Yes, we are, but most of us are breathing incorrectly. We are shallow breathers. That’s because stress is very much a part of our life today despite the advancement in technology to make living easier. In fact, it is this overload of information that makes some of us feel overwhelmed. Information can be accessed from our phones. We do not even have to wait to return to our desktops, and some of us don’t even need one. Our phones are our mobile computers.
However, those of us who are stuck at our desks sit for a long time working. This prolonged sitting contributes also to shallow breathing, as the space between our lungs and diaphragm is restricted.
What’s wrong with this type of breathing?
Shallow breathing goes back to the fight-flight mechanism.
The autonomic nervous system, which controls our heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, urination, for example, manages two subsystems: sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic Nervous System
When the body encounters stress, be it from a job, relationship, exercise, death of a loved one, or finances, a chemical cascade in the body is set in motion. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s stress response system is activated like a fire truck pulling out of the fire department to put out a fire. Chemical hormones are released: epinephrine/norepinephrine, cortisol, inflammatory cytokines. Blood sugar, respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood pressure increase, whereas insulin and anti-inflammatory cytokines decrease. The body is in a mode to fight or run. Unless the homeostasis state of the body is restored, the body is on a disease path.
Homeostasis is the process of maintaining an optimal range of biological parameters in our system for survival and optimal function. Parameters include our body temperature, pH balance, CO2/O2, heart rate, blood vessel wall contraction and muscle tone. When we have a homeostatic balance, we can respond to physical, mental, emotional, psychological stressors–in the most flexible way without causing harm to ourselves or others.
Why Breathe Deeply
Parasympathetic Nervous System
Deep breathing is one way to restore the body to equilibrium. By inhaling deeply, and lengthening our exhales, we activate another system called the vagus nerve system. It is the primary pathway to the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our ability to relax. When we are relaxed, we sleep better. When we are relaxed, our food digests better. When we are relaxed, we are better human beings overall.
Why are we better human beings overall?
Whereas we tend to fight or run when the sympathetic nervous system is activated; we tend to connect when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated.
This was highlighted in the Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges:
…autonomic subsystems are phylogenetically ordered and behaviorally linked to social communication (eg, facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (eg, fight–flight behaviors), and immobilization (eg, feigning death, vasovagal syncope, and behavioral shutdown).
The social communication system (i.e, social engagement system) involves the myelinated vagus, which serves to foster calm behavioral states by inhibiting sympathetic influences to the heart and dampening the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Unlike other mammals, our vagus nerve or “myelinated vagus” helps us to exhibit a calm state. It controls our facial muscles, so we look more approachable or seem more open. The tone of our voice is likely to be more of compassion and empathy rather than aggression or anger. Instead of running or isolating ourselves, we are more inclined to connect. And we are actively listening.
Our bodies are amazing! By practicing deep breathing we trigger the vagus nerve, which contributes to a relaxed state.
Perceiving the Environment as Safe
When we are relaxed, we also tend to feel safe. When we feel safe, growth and healing can occur states Dr. Porges:
…bodily state is regulated in an efficient manner to promote growth and restoration (eg, visceral homeostasis). This is done through an increase in the influence of mammalian myelinated vagal motor pathways on the cardiac pacemaker that slows the heart, inhibits the fight–flight mechanisms of the sympathetic nervous system, dampens the stress response system of the HPA axis (eg, cortisol), and reduces inflammation by modulating immune reactions (e.g., cytokines).
When we practice deep breathing, we intentionally make long exhales because we know that the heart rate increases when we inhale and decreases when we exhale. This action of deep breathing helps to reduce the level of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. When the level of cortisol is managed, less inflammation occurs in the body. When there is less inflammation, our immune system is stronger and able to defend the body from attacks.
So, deep breathing can activate the vagus nerve, which is the pathway to the parasympathetic nervous system. It is our parasympathetic nervous system that makes us feel relaxed and perceive the environment as safe. Porges notes that most individuals “(those without a psychiatric disorder or neuropathology), evaluates risk and matches neurophysiological state with the actual risk of the environment.” However, some individuals can “experience a mismatch and the nervous system appraises the environment as being dangerous even when it is safe. This mismatch results in physiological states that support fight, flight, or freeze behaviors, but not social engagement behaviors.” In essence, by physiologically controlling our bodies through intentional breathing, we can alter our behavior or exhibit behaviors that nurture connectedness and intimacy. Hence, an awareness and a breath practice can have great impact on our homes, our workspaces, and our relationships.
Meditative Movements and Breathing Deeply
Another way to practice intentional breathing is through meditative movements. Breath is a major component of meditative movements such as Yoga, Qigong and Tai chi. These physical activities can move us out of the sympathetic state so that our posture, beliefs, emotions and thoughts are affected. When we are in a relaxed state, we have certain thoughts or emotions available to us that are linked to positive social behavior.
May you have thoughts of peace, thoughts of gratitude, thoughts of hope. May you discover the gift of breath wherever you are. You have access to this state, and it is free. So, breathe deeply—inhale, then slowly release. Take another breath, inhaling deeply and slowly exhaling. Developing a breathing practice can help us to become better human beings.