Take a moment to ask yourself how you’re feeling today?
A little tired? Perhaps you’re stressed? Worried about a meeting? Feeling frustrated or frazzled?
What if you had the capacity to improve the way you’re feeling right now simply by changing how you’re breathing?
Take a deep breath
We all have this ability, and it’s as easy as taking a few deep, relaxed breaths.
If you have time, you can practice taking a few deep breaths now:
- Sit up straight to create more space for the breath in your chest
- Place a hand on your abdomen below your belly button
- Breathe through your nose and let your belly push your hand out
- Exhale as slowly and gently as you can without tightening your abdomen or chest
How it works
Taking a few deep, relaxed breaths is one of the best ways to reduce stress and tension, and promote feelings of calm.
Why? The answer lies within our nervous system.
Our parasympathetic nervous system counters stress in the body and helps to activate our relaxation response. A key part of this process is the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve (vagus meaning wandering) originates from the brainstem and passes through many of the body’s major organs and systems, including the heart, lungs, gut, and immune system.
As a result, it receives bioelectrical and biochemical feedback from numerous parts of the body. This information is transmitted back to the brain, and helps to determine whether or not we are currently perceiving or experiencing a threat1Yuan, H., & Silberstein, S. D. (20160> Vagus Nerv e and Vagus Nerve Stimulation, a Comprehensive Review: Part I. Headache, 56(1), 71-78. Doi: 10.1111/head.12647. For example, when the vagus nerve senses rapid heart rate, shallow breathing and tense muscles, it sends signals to the brain that we are experiencing stress, and as a result the stress response is turned on.
Turn on your calming switch
You can use the vagus nerve to move yourself out of states of anxiety, stress, irritability or low mood and into a calmer frame of mind2Porges, S. W. (2009). The Polyvagal Theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76(2), 86 – 90. Doi: 10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17.
Since it is impossible to be both stressed and relaxed at the same time, controlled, relaxed breathing is a powerful tool to counter the strain of daily life. Taking a few deep breaths into the lower lobes of the lungs triggers the vagus nerve to send a message to the brain which says ‘it’s ok’. This allows tension held by your muscles and organs to relax, and moves you into a calmer state.
By practising exercises such as this regularly, you can learn to manage your feelings of chronic stress, generate a calmer and more relaxed base state, and use it at any point during your day to improve the way you feel3Everly, G., Jr., & Lating, J. (2013). Voluntary control of respiration patterns. In: A clinical guide to the treatment of the human stress response, 223–235. Springer..