The Autonomic Nervous System is our bodies’ way of dealing 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. Located in the hypothalamus of the brain, it impacts our drives (sex, hunger, thirst), delivers feedback for the control of our emotions (fear, anger, pleasure), and regulates our water, salt and hormonal levels, 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 its own independent system entirely.) The sympathetic nervous system 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 cannot distinguish between a hungry tiger and 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. Through stimulation of the hypothalamus, the parasympathetic response helps to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. 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.
How to Create Relaxation
One of the primary benefits of yoga is to down-regulate the nervous system and induce a state of calm. We have all experienced a savasana that left us blissful and smiling all the way home. You may have thought it was simply because of the physical challenge of the asanas, but what truly made the difference was your quality of breath!
Here are some tips for stress relief and relaxation:
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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 in savasana and witness your own complete relaxation.
Meditation can be simple! Do not be intimidated by the pictures of 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. 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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Breath work has been essential for me in reducing and managing my stress and anxiety. I used to suffer from panic and anxiety attacks on a regular, almost daily basis. As a dancer we use the breath to help execute or cue movement but I was not aware of its connection to the nervous system. I first learned about tools to neutralize or calm myself down and have been implementing these techniques into my life ever since!
I lkie the connection of breath to the nervous system and the simplification of exercise to combat stress. Easy breath and meditation for more life!
“Take a deep breath” is not a cliche, it works. I wish more people would trust that advice. There would be a lot less tension and anger in the world.
Love this! I have very shallow breathing and have been living life in my sympathetic nervous system for a very lone time. Finally learning how to break out of this and down-regulate my breathing and nervous system to induce a a state of calm.
As an asthmatic, I have often found myself in the fight or flight mode of breathing, and I can truly say that the balls make a huge difference in releasing the musculature that can become chronically tight after years of struggling with asthma. The beautiful snowball effect of this is that the Pranayama, Meditation and Awareness come so much more comfortably following the ball work release!
A friend was talking about her panic attacks, how since having children and this endless list of things to do, she could not find a way to let go of the control. She perceived she needed to stay in this stress to keep control and get things done. But pointing out to her scientific mind that this is living in her parasympathetic system brought light to the physiological impact this behavior has on her health. Now she need to apply the tools to balance her body and mind so she is not running from a tiger all the time.
Love, love, love this!! There is nothing else like it for successfully navigating a challenging situation.
This is a great post about the very simple tool that we have in our yogic tool belt to down regulate the nervous system. I always feel like belly breathing is the fastest way to get out of the sympathetic nervous system response and use it all the time in moments like horrible traffic or in the midst of a heated moment of tension. As soon as I click into some awareness of the stressful situation, my belly breath is my next action. It’s crazy to realize how often it’s not moving at all as we breathe.
Great simple but thorough explanation of the role of sympathetic vs parasympathetic systems and the effect of breath on same. This will help me explain the role of breath in concise understandable terms.
This is why I love Yoga Tune Up®! Breath in yoga always seemed a mystery to me until Jill. The controlled breathing has saved me more times than I can count (especially fear of flying anxiety). Love the reminder to incorporate belly breath – something you can never hear enough.
Pilates is great for all sorts of reasons, however when it comes to maximizing ones breath capacity, I find that it falls short. The only way to truly gain deeper breaths, is to stretch the muscles responsible for the action, not just strengthen and “tone” them. Uddiyana Bandha is the key here!
Woah. I just commented on another blog and mentioned a client who came to me all wound up in knots after years of working a high power stressful corporate job. She just wanted to learn how to breath. After reading your post, I now realize that she was only doing clavicular breathing. Her shoulders were always hunched up to her ears, her belly was always tense, and she could not inhale. I have another client at the same company who also cannot relax her belly. They both practice pilates quite intensely. Does this help or hinder the breath? They are so used to contracting the belly, they can’t release it. Full belly breaths are coming!
Awesome article! During a training course, I learned that I’ve been a clavicular breather most of my life, due to trauma at a very young age. Learning that I can purposefully “Breath Easier” anytime I transfer the breath to my belly was transformative. Practicing this breathing anytime during the day, automatically brings a calming sensation to the entire body… inside and out… now there’s a good reason to smile! 🙂
Excellent information on the nervous system. I often “forget” to breathe, especially in thougher situations. How easy is to use your belly breath at the red light, in a traffic jam, or at a staff meeting. Just don’t fall asleep 🙂
Thanks for the review of the nervous system and the different breaths. I definitely need to focus on the belly breath for stress relief.
Tiffany – thank you for explaining how the nervous system works and reminding us to use our full belly breath. I spend week days commuting to and from work for about an hour each way. Instead of being irritated by traffic, I have been using the time to practice different Pranayamas.
Breathing seems so simple – yet it is incredibly profound!
From personal healing, awakening the body, calming the body down – to sharing the energy of breath with others or using certain techniques to bring life into the world, it’s purposes are numerous.
I can’t help but smile that it seems to be such a secret!
Before Yoga Tune Up with Sarah and Pure Yoga Teacher Training, I never paid attention to my breathing (even while practicing yoga and running!). I have found that my breathing is slow, shallow & often times clavicular (especially at the office). Sometimes I don’t know if I would breathe at all! No wonder I have been so tired and stressed. I have become more mindful when dealing with stress at the office and out. Thank you all for bringing it to my awareness.
Extremely informative article! Thank you 🙂
Since being in the Yoga Teacher Training, I have become much more aware of my breathing and have learned many new exercises to enhance and expand it. It is becoming habitual now to really concentrate on my breath in stressful situations like sitting in traffic in particular. I was pleasantly surprised at my calm reaction to losing my wallet recently which I can only attribute to learning more about breathing! Thank you for this reminder.
Outstanding This really is one of the most beneficial sites I’ve ever read on this subject.
Lauren~ Best asanas for down regulating the parasympathetic system are especially anything that stretches the diaphragm such as uddiyana, also with back traction or any other position you can attempt it. Asanas that are passively held for many minutes, also used in conjunction with pranayama work like dead air volume refresher. The leg stretch series is very sedating for the system, usually students want to curl up for a nap after. Let me know if you have any more questions. Hope this helps! xo~Tiffany
Always a great reminder to use belly breathing to invoke the parasympathetic nervous system. I find that when I am in stressful situations which lead me to lose focus I engage deep breathing on the inhale and exhale to bring down my heart rate and calm me down so that I can refocus on the issues at hand.
The part about not being able to distinguish between a hungry tiger ready to feast on our flesh and a traffic jam made me crack up! Oh, the things we stress about today!
Great tips for creating relaxation – thank you. Which asanas are especially good for targeting the parasympathetic system?
The breathing I have learned in yoga has helped me so much! When I get stressed now, it is the first thing I try to do to calm myself down. This post has some additional info that I was not aware of – thanks!
Interesting piece- this ties in to so much of what one hears today in medicine that stress is the foundational cause of illness in our society. From a public health and preventative medicine perspective we might go a long way toward creating a healthy population at a fraction of current costs were the simple steps listed above adopted.
Great reminder of this information. It is so simple and soooo powerful. Lindsay, having a 12 year old daughter, I could not agree more!
Just last night as I was driving my son to swim team practice he was upset with a friend and spewing his emotions. I let him vent and get out what he needed to then when he was done we breathed together, fully with emphasize on the exhale. By the time we got to our destination he was calm and ready to swim without drowning himself in emotion.
Years ago I used to experience panic attacks due to the stress level of my job & my current relationship. Luckily I was starting to practice yoga more frequently and I was able to practice my deep belly breathing as soon as I felt a panic attack coming on. I haven’t had a panic attack in 3 years and I can thank my yoga practice for this! This breathing technique always calms me down and whenever I am in a stressful situation I start my deep breathing. At the end of the day I meditate so I can let go of any concerns or stressful situations that occured that day. Also, my yoga tune up balls have helped my body release the built up tension in my upper back and shoulders. It’s amazing how much stress we hold in our physical body!
I have become very conscious of being aware of my breathing while in traffic or waiting in line at the store as I know those are situations I become easily stressed. By making it almost a habit to be aware of my breathing during those situations, it is becoming easier to be aware of my breathing during at work and other times I feel anxious.
I also find myself holding my breath during the day as a result of stress and anxiety. Although I know taking deep breaths will alleviate my stress, it is always hard to practice – especially at the times you need it the most. This article helps in understanding of the science behind breathing and makes me more aware of how I am breathing and feeling in the moment.
One of the most effective methods I have found to effectively switch out of a stressful mindset and sooth myself has been elongating my exhales. For me, meditation is the other method to switch modes. On the days that I am not able to sit in mediation for 20 minutes I can see that I am less able to balance my system.
I think this has tremendous implications for practice. Many of the students I work with (as a social worker) are suffering from over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system as a result of abuse, neglect, living in danger zones, etc. I see them taking in otherwise benign signals without the ability to respond appropriately, which often gets them in trouble. I always have to work on breathing with them. They are stuck in clavicular breathing, which I cannot imagine doing all day long for years. Interestingly enough I’ve been reading about children who experience severe trauma who hand out in their parasympathetic nervous system which is supposed to control an immobilization response that is separate from the flight or flight response. I want to explore this more to continue helping my kids breathe!
Lindsay!! I LOVE your response! Indeed, I am on Team “Love Your Tummy”. Without fail when I teach agni sara/nauli, a stream of fear washes over the faces of students because for it to be done properly, one MUST release their belly! I constantly have this discussion in class. The more you lead by example and allow your belly to hang out, the more students will follow. Thank You for your bravery! Blessings~TIffany
Interestingly, the sympathetic nervous system is innate while the parasympathetic is developed–primarily In infancy and childhood with nurturing and touch. Children and adults, who, as children, lacked proper nurturing, often have under developed parasympathetic nervous systems which lead to a whole host of other problems often manifest in shallow breathing and a profound lack of body awareness, which can make pranayama and meditation profoundly challenging. Self massage with the yoga tune up balls can provide a safe, non-threatening doorway to other, more calming practices that will allow the parasympathetic nervous system to develop, even late in life.
Great review on the autonomic nervous system. This article should be posted at every high school, gym locker room and mall dressing room. The reason I say that is becuase I believe woman- especially young woman are afraid to let their bellies “fill out.” Of course it is good to have a strong core, but it is not necessary for your abdominals to be as flat as a board. I want to start a love your tummy movement- to teach others how it’s more important to practice yogic breath/relaxation for better health and wellness than to look like a genetically slight supermodel in a magazine. Wouldn’t that alone relieve some stress! Thanks again for a great article.
I didn’t know that the autonomic Nervous System is located in the hypothalamus of the brain which impacts so many different things.
I never connected that clavicular breathing and living in the sypathetic nervous system could lead to stress and was very surprised it can be the cause of stress.
I sometimes find myself holding my breath during the day, not occasioned by any particular source of stress but just as a normal base line after a work day. At those times, when I’m lucky enough to be aware of what’s happening, trying belly breathing is actually difficult, because the body wants to take a clavicle breath instead.
It is so important to have a handful of ways to stimulate a parasympathetic response. We are meant to be balanced creatures but everything in our world triggers the sympathetic response and we are almost always ready for fight or flight, because our bodies can’t tell the difference between a real stress and the stress we experience while watching a scary movie. We need to have tools to help us relax and even out the constant stimulation of our day to day lives. Belly breathing is a great tool, and something anyone can employ at any time.
The yogic breath has been invaluable to me since I’ve learned it–thanks for reminding me why!