As reassuring (or sometimes annoying) the suggestion to “just take a deep breath” is, especially when you are in a moment of panic, there is a fundamental truth to this advice on how we can calm ourselves and sooth our nervous system in times of distress or strong emotional upwelling.

Our breath is unique from other visceral bodily systems in that it is both automatic and also within the realm of our conscious control. On average, we take over 20,000 breaths per day; most of that time without thought or deliberate control directed toward the process. Yet our capacity to consciously modulate the breath allows us to influence the nervous system and have an intentional impact upon our emotional state. In this way, your breath could be considered a free and readily available therapeutic salve.

Ardha-Savasana-Check-InWhen we breathe in, the diaphragm (a dome-shaped muscle located below the heart and lungs and above the internal organs) contracts and moves downward, causing the abdominal wall to swell as the breath is drawn into the lungs. Upon exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and the lungs deflate. Sounds simple enough, right?

Though it might seem to be a rather simplistic process on the surface, the effect of breathing mechanics reaches much further than just the musculature involved. Consider that we are a complex being with neural pathways, circulatory networks and connective tissue reaching throughout the entire body, all of which contribute to the interconnectivity of the whole.

Now consider that beyond the benefit of nourishing your cells with oxygen, the functioning, patterning and movement of your breath also impacts your emotional state. This has much to do with the direct influence that the breath has on the vagus nerve, which helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the branch of the Central Nervous System (CNS) that helps calm you down and diminish sympathetic nervous system dominance (the fight or flight response).

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, originating in the medulla and wandering down through the throat, esophagus, lungs and into the viscera or internal organs. In fact, the nerve’s given name (from the Latin word vagus, meaning to wander) implies its vagabond-like tendencies to wander and wind along its path. With the understanding that our nerves are a conduit of communication to and from the brain, we can see that as the vagus nerve pierces the diaphragm through the oesophogeal hiatus and reaches toward and into the viscera (the internal organs). It serves as a principal communication channel between the enteric nervous system (associated with your digestive system) and the central nervous system (the central command center.)

The diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle that lines the bottom six ribs, is your primary breathing muscle.

The diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle that lines the bottom six ribs, is your primary breathing muscle.

During the process of breathing, the movement of the diaphragm influences the nervous system by stimulating and sending nerve impulses to the brain. When we breathe quickly, in a shallow way, or with the movement of the breath primarily in the chest and collarbone area, we can illicit a flight/flight response. When we breathe slowly and deeply, recruiting the diaphragm as the prime mover of respiration, that elongation of the breath stimulates the “rest and digest” response.

With stress levels at epic proportions, there is an increasing need for effective tools to neutralize anxiety. One thing is for certain – our lives are jam packed, even flooded, with constant information via the media, cell phones, computers, bosses, family, friends, etc., and very little time is spent telling the nervous system that all is well. Even less time is spent in that state of “calm, cool and collected”. The breath is the easiest way to begin to give your body and brain a big dose of ahhhhhhhhh.

Though there are various abodes of breath and pranayama exercises that serve different purposes, diaphragmatic breathing (also called abdominal breathing) produces the most sedating effect on the body – and breathing is free! While it is not the complete solution to stress management, developing a consistent conscious breathing practice creates an imprint on the nervous system, making the “rest and digest” state of being more readily accessible when we need a calm, focused approach to the challenges we face and the emotional upwelling we experience in our lives. At the very least, it’s a very handy tool to have in our self-care toolbox.

Check out this deep breathing video below where Jill teaches this foundational practice essential to the process of establishing beneficial diaphragmatic breathing mechanics and to soothe the nervous system.

 

Tune back in on Friday for Part 2 and more strategies to help develop breath awareness, increase lung capacity and stimulate the vagus nerve to have you calmer on the freeway, truly present in that important meeting and perhaps more willing and able to “just take a deep breath” in the moments when you need it most.

Other references:

 

Enjoyed this article? Read Turn On your OFF Switch
Elissa Strutton

Elissa Dawn Strutton, E-RYT is a certified Yoga Tune Up ® instructor and is also a certified Forrest Yoga teacher. She delights in sharing the gifts of yoga with others and is committed to providing a space that facilitates healing, self-discovery and personal growth. Elissa’s classes are challenging, yet accessible as she supports students of all levels with skillful adjustments and posture modifications. She encourages her students to connect deeply with the breath while practicing with mindfulness, honesty and integrity.

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Elizabeth Pezzello

This is amazing. I suffer from anxiety and at times experience heart palpitations. Whenever this happens I rely on my breath to stimulate the feel-good nerves in my brain and it works every time. This is a great reminder of why breath is so important!

Kim

I definitively never get tired reading about breathing. Knowing hir major role in our body (nourishing our cells with oxygen, impacting our emotional state, etc.), I try to focus more on it evereday… After all: «our lives are jam packed, even flooded, […], and very little time is spent telling the nervous system that all is well»

Anne-Marie

It is interesting how we could think that ‘take a deep breath’ to calm us down is a psychological tool meant to help us slow down and come back to the present moment, but how fascinating is it that it actually works directly on the nervous system.

Liselotte Frandsen

Had I only had this tool when I was school teacher! So many teenagers suffer from anxiety and are on medicin for it, but instead they should be taught breathing exercises. Breathing exercise can truly empower you!

Wendi

Been doing my breathing techniques while laying in bed, not only to relax, but also to empty my mind after YTU training, so I can sleep! So helpful!

Rea

Exactly how I feel – I`ve been searching around for blog posts about breathing and this is so helpful. It is amazing what a powerful tool our breath is. I had really good experiences exploring breathing techniques – you are right it is a tool that is available for us almost any time and it is free!

John Watson

Breathing well is so underrated and under appreciated. There was a fad awhile back of Oxygen bars where people when strap on masks and get a hit of O2. I always thought that they just needed a “deep breathing” bar. Also I have a friend who gave up smoking after I told him about a quote I heard from Woody Harrelson who quit when he realized that all he really wanted when he smoked was a few deep breaths.

Andree

With the career that I have, stress is a given. It’s gone unchecked for a while and when I learned about how the breath pattern and speed can help relax the central nervous system, it was very eye opening! I can’t wait to incorporate this into my daily routine!

Corena Purcell

Since learning of this technique it has revolutionized how quickly I get to sleep. I also believe that I am breathing much better through out the day. It is wonderful.

Kristine

Since learning about how deep breathing and belly breathing can help activate our parasympathetic nervous systems, I’ve started practicing deep breathing whenever I’m in a stressful situation at work or while sitting in traffic, and I’ve noticed a significant improvement in the way I’m able to process and react to stress. I’ve also started employing deep breathing techniques before bed and have found that I’m able to fall asleep more quickly and sleep throughout the night without interruption. I now consistently wake up before my alarm clock and feel refreshed and recharged. It’s amazing how simply focusing on your breath… Read more »

Noémie

I was looking for a simple new way to start my vinyasa class this afternoon that usually takes place at 4:30. My students arrive at studio in such a rush, just coming out of traffic. And when we can in class I can totally feel that nobody’s breathing. I will have them start into Ardha Savasana and guide them toward this simple yet so calming kind of breathing. Thank you Elissa.:)

Katrina LK

YTU broke down the difference between abdominal, thoracic, and clavicular breathing. As I was doing my YTU Level 1 training, I probably looked a little nuts sitting with my manual, doing my homework, and deliberately trying out clavicular breath just to see what it felt like. Now I remember it when I’m feeling panicked, angry, or overwhelmed. Deliberate deep breaths can bring me back down to a level where I can engage my rational brain and make better choices. Such an insightful article!

Steven Custodio

Breathing such an important aspect of our lives, free and again so powerful. By controlling your breathing, you control your emotions, stress, basically anything life throws at you, the longer the exhales are the better and more control you gain. During some cardio activities, specially when i’m doing a spinning class, I ofter sit back on my seat, close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing, ensuring that the exhales are longer than the inhales in order to calm the nervous system and getting a normal heartbeat back. I also make sure that after I teach a power class, that… Read more »

Sierra

Fantastic article. I love the in-depth and well rounded explanation on the functions of deep breathing.

Harriet

The breath is truly the most accessible and profound self-soothing strategy! Integrating simple pranayama exercises into my daily routine has helped me so much. The shift for me happened when I stopped thinking of meditation as something I had to do for an hour every day (in fact, that mentality probably added to my stress levels!) but as something to do consistently throughout the day in shorter bursts. Like little down regulation snacks. Now, I indulge in a few minutes of intentional, mindful breathing probably at least once every hour. The more you use and understand a tool, the more… Read more »

Carrie

Thank you for also mentioning the excitatory effects of shallow quick breathing on the Sympathetic nervous system. I feel that often gets missed when the idea of breathe eliciting a relaxation response is addressed.

Lorraine

This is one of the first things I talked about when I worked out with my friend (a trainer and Tune Up teacher) the first time. We discussed dow regulation of the body and how breathing can change so much about our body both physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Jamie Walsh

Thank you, Elissa.

One of the simplest explanations I have read about breath effects on Vagus Nerve.

Julie Cadorette

Wow! I knew breathing was a good way to down-regulate the nervous system, but knew absolutely nothing about the vagus nerve and the relation between the nervous system and the enteric nervous system! I’m so happy to better understand “how it works” and be able to explain it to my students. Thank you!

Monica

Thanks for this post Elissa! I’ve always had trouble remembering the name of the vagus nerve- and what a fun way to remember it- it’s the winding vagabond nerve. It’s so important for our culture today to have tools to help reduce stress and calm the nervous system. It’s easy to think ‘the body reflects the mind and the mind reflects the body’ is just a ‘woo-woo’ yoga saying, but it is the absolute truth. The diaphragm actually sends nerve impulses to the brain!

Daryl Baucum

Hi, I love reading about the science behind down regulation and realizing there’s a common body-based phenomenon at work in so many different relaxation techniques or practices related to breath. Knowing there is a mechanism at work and not just a philosophy or tradition or what have you for me at least fosters an added belief in the efficacy of the process which translates into me practicing more regularly.

Alexandra

I really appreciated how you spoke about the importance of breath. Most people, myself included, often forget how important it is to breathe during your practice and life in general. We rely on our breath to live and that is so often forgotten. Your post was very interesting and relatable for me because often when I forget to breathe in my practice I start to get very anxious and nervous. Then, once I start breathing it all gets better.

Susan

Flight or Fight – sympathetic
Rest and Digest -parasympathetic

I knew for a long time that belly breathing can be very soothing. It is great to get some whys on it. thank you!

Jocelyn

I enjoyed how much you outlined the importance of something that is often forgotten. Every time I practice yoga, whether on my own or leading a class, I incorporate a breathing exercise. I have had people tell me they have experienced instant headache relief by taking these tools with them outside of class.
It can be too easy to get caught up in our daily activities, with no body or breath awareness – I hope everyone who reads this takes the time to sit back and just be and breathe for a few minutes.

Robin

I like the technique of focused meditation presented in the video, which I have tried as a sort of midday savasana. I also like the use of a bolster as presented in the video, as I think this also helps relax the back, in turn helping my breathing into the back as breath pours into the lungs, as the belly expands. A mini-vacation in the middle of the day is the best thing! I love that I can purposefully use these methods to calm down and think a little more clearly, and believe these breathing exercises should be a part… Read more »

Michelle Tan

“Your breath could be considered a free and readily available therapeutic salve.” – It is so true! Our emotion affects our breath and vice versa. To breathe long, deep and slow could be very therapeutic! Thanks for sharing!

Jonathan McKinna

Thank you for sharing, Elissa! Just like Roll Model Therapy Balls, breath is grippy (clings to your nervous system and encourages rest/digest), pliable (springy and cushion-y), portable (always with you), and affordable (free!).

Maddy MacKenzie

Couldn’t agree more!
This is also my go to breath when I need to calm my nervous system down, I also like putting my hands on belly to have a physical feedback! Thanks for sharing!

Karina

Je réalise que, lorsque je guide les élèves à travers des exercices de respiration, parfois je le fais de manière mécanique sans me requestionner sur toutes les autre bonnes raisons qui font en sorte que la respiration profonde est si importante.
Je vous remercie de nous rappeler qu’il s’agit du sédentatif le plus efficace !

Jaclyn

When I experience moments of anxiety or tension, I try to focus on deep belly breathing (abdominal, or diaphragmatic breathing) in order to down-regulate. I find it most helpful to actually watch my abdomen fill up and then empty as I breathe. The visual signal helps me to feel the effects faster, for some reason.

Athena Vassilatos

I feel like the fact that deep breathing is so effective at relaxing us was what brought me to the practice of yoga. I always said that yoga was what was keeping me “sane” while I was at school. The fact that deep breathing helps the nervous system to calm down is a clear reason of how good those yoga classes were for me when I was experiencing a lot of stress from my studies.

Griffin

Deep breathing is a technique I never really mastered until after my teacher training. There are many negative effects with shallow breathing, such as oxygen deficiency. By practicing proper deep breathing, one is able to relieve stress, anxiety, and many other things. In my experience, I am actually able to slow my heart rate by practicing deep breathing, and it has helped me so much!

Deb

we must breathe, …. we begin with the breath and end with the breath… lovely~ peace

Cheryl

This is my “go to” breath that I start my classes out with just to help everyone transition from the stresses of the day. As a high strung person, this has become my Sankalpa. The only side effect to this medication is relaxation.

Évelyne Paquin

C’est surprenant de constater toutes ces connexions présentent dans le corps humain. Lorsque je pratiquais cette technique de respiration je ne faisais que ressentir les effets sur ma musculature sans connaître les intéractions avec le système nerveux central. La respiration en plein conscience vient de prendre tout son sens pour moi maintenant que je comprends le rôle du nerf vagal sur notre système nerveux central.

Rena

I like that you said breathing is free!
It’s so true. Why spend all of that money on therapy sessions.
Just breathe.?

Janine Watson

I’ve noticed when I hunch my shoulder s(bad, I know) my breath is shallower, and in noticing, I slightly elevate my collarbone and top ribs to give me a deeper breath. I had some problems a few years ago with a vaso-vagel response that introduced me to this fascinating nerve. One interesting fact: it is the longest nerve in the body.

Suzanne Drolet

So many people don’t understand the relationship of the breath to the nervous system. And while many yoga classes emphasize conscious breathing, not as many teach how to use it effectively (for stress relief and to support other daily life and movement functions). Thanks for this clear explanation as well as relating it to the vagus nerve. Much appreciated!

Kayla Lee

This is one of the coolest things in my opinion. It is mind blowing that we can take control of our parasympathetic nervous system through controlling the diaphragm. The complete yogic breath is a beautiful way to do this, and something that I integrate into all of my classes now, as well as my personal practice.

Sholina

I was not aware the vagus nerve connected to the enteric nervous system. This means that “rest and digest” is quite literal. The more we breathe, the better we digest. I didn’t think of it that way before. Thank you.

Stephanie

It’s incredible how something as simple as breathing can effect our emotional state so much. I started really focusing on mindful breathing about a year ago, and I began to notice the effects it had on me immediately. This has definitely been one of the most effective tools for me to neutralize anxiety. I hope more people take advantage of this safe, free method of stress management.

Andrea

It is always so amazing how just taking a few deep breaths can help take the “edge” off a situation. Taking the brain from that fight response (maybe if you are at work) to the “rest and digest” response can save you. And as you say, breathing is free and can be done anywhere. This is a great tool to put in your children’s self care box too.

Eva Jedlovsky

Through my yoga practice I learned how to breathe through the belly which made a huge difference for me. I use it every time when anxious or under stress and try to teach my family to do the same. Now I can explain to them exactly why. It was great to learn about the vagus nerve and its relation to breathing.

Lori Palmer

What I love about this the reminder of how powerful the breath is at calming us down, and we have that power with us always.

Sharon

Well explained! will share now with someone I know very well that deals with anxiety. I use it myself to stay on track.

Cintia Hongay

I always encourage belly breathing throughout the practice. An efficient way to bring awareness to full belly breathing is breathing in crocodile pose. There is a nice expansion of the back as the belly is on the floor, an effective way to get students’ attention into the muscles of the back that do participate in breathing. Thank you for remind us of the calming effects of belly breathing, the way babies breath… Happy!

Christine

You and Anna Nalik say it well… Just breathe! We don’t focus enough on it and yes, the benefits of it on the CNS are invaluable. Hard to have a panic attack if you are deep breathing!

Elise

Great article! I didn’t know about the role of the vagus nerve in this process. Thanks.

Lizzy

I have many clients ask why breathing is important. Thank you for such a concise and clear explanation on the function and benefits of deep breath.