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:
1. Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls
These miracle workers in the shape of a rubber ball can melt away your shoulder and upper back tension and leave you feeling refreshed. Plus, you can carry them with you everywhere!!
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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