There is a mental health and hygiene practice that you should be doing at least as regularly as brushing your teeth. Not only is there a broad range of research demonstrating its effectiveness for improving your physiological and psychological health, but it is non-invasive and free. You're doing it right now… the missing ingredient might just be your intentionality.
Nervous System Functionality
Breath rests on the border of the conscious and unconscious. Now that it has your attention, you're likely more aware of it and may even find yourself changing its flow. Moments ago, perhaps not so much. Yet, you were still breathing.
Woman with curly hair, eyes closed, looking to be peacefully breathing.
This is because your breath is controlled by your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The same system controls your heart rate, blood flow, and digestion, amongst other bodily functions. These systems speed up or slow down as your body attempts to cultivate homeostasis, your internal balance. The ANS is divided into two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). When you sense danger, your SNS elicits a fight or flight response. In contrast, a safe and calm environment evokes the PNS, a rest and digest response.
Like most unconscious processes, these responses are evolutionarily driven with a focus on survival. You don't get to 'choose' which system takes the physiological reigns because, on the savannah, a moment of hesitation would have seen you land in the jaws of a tiger. The challenge is that in our modern world, we're dealing with emails rather than tigers and our evolved brains frequently imagine detailed catastrophes. While they exist only in the mind, these imaginings turn 'on' that same 'fight or flight' response, even though you can't run from these fears.
Given that stress levels are rising globally, we know the SNS is likely being turned on regularly – chronically even. The SNS has high energetic demands, resulting in an allostatic load. The heavier it is, the more vulnerable one is to physical and psychological ails.
The Mind-Body Connection
Western science has long disbanded the historical dichotomy between the mind and body. Fields like psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) have evolved, reflecting how "bidirectional pathways connect the brain and the immune system and provide the foundation for neural, endocrine, and behavioural effects on immunity," (Ader, 2001). This means that stress not only leaves your heart rate pumping and pupils dilated but increases your susceptibility to immunologically-mediated diseases. In practical terms, you're more likely to get sick after periods of high stress.
Person sitting down at computer. Their head held in their hands looking like they are experiencing stress.
No, getting sick after exams or following a big project deadline isn't ideal. Yet, what is even more concerning is when the stress is unrelenting – chronic stress. Within the field of PNI, chronic stress is recognised as a significant contributor to coronary heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Increased levels of inflammation mark this. The purpose of the increased inflammation is that historically high stress signalled one could become more vulnerable to an infection, like a tiger bite or battle wound. Given the bi-directional nature of your bodily communication, these immune markers then utilise a common molecular language to tell your brain that your immune system is activated. The brain interprets this as a warning to be on 'alert'. Suddenly, you're more likely to perceive otherwise neutral stimuli as threats (like an ambiguous text message or email). You'll become more stressed, perhaps experiencing clinical levels of anxiety, going on to a depressive episode, further impacting the biophysiological systems of your body.
Given your brain evolved to scan for environmental threats, and your body evolved to react in consort, what's the antidote?
The Benefits of Breathing
The breath. Remember that it rests on the border of the conscious and the unconscious. So while you (probably!) cannot consciously slow your heart rate or normalise your immune function, you can control your breath. Used effectively, it can break the chain between the various behavioural, neural, endocrine and immune processes unfolding in your body.
Chances are, too, that you've recently heard a lot about breath work. From the seemingly superhuman feats of The Ice Man Wim Hoff to the bestselling book Breath by James Nestor, folks are coming to understand that the breath has power. But why?
The current hypothesis around the mechanism identifies the stimulation and toning of the vagal nerve through respiration. The vagus nerve is the biggest nerve in your body and is the primary nerve of the PNS, governing your rest and digest response. When it is 'toned' (like a muscle), you are physiologically more able to shift back into a relaxed state following a SNS trigger. This relaxation response has long been coveted as a vital antidote to stress. The result is that your system experiences less allostatic load. Knowing chronic stress's damaging effects, this could be a mortality-buffering state.
Interestingly, respiratory vagal nerve stimulation (rVNS) captures one mechanism for the broad PNI benefits associated with contemplative practices, including meditation and mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi. But not only do I teach breathing to both invigorate and relax on the yoga mat (known as pranayama), breathing exercises are very much a part of clinical intervention in the therapy room. This is because you can effect your emotional state by changing your breathing.
I suggest that if you are experiencing chronic stress, like so much of the population, you start by exploring diaphragmatic breathing. This is also called 'belly breathing', where you slowly draw the breath down into your belly. Gently release it with a slightly longer exhale, all the while using your nose to breathe. I'll explain more about this practice in a subsequent post, knowing that having read this article you are already more aware of your breath. Set an intention to cultivate a rhythm and flow that feels healthful to you, both physiologically and psychologically.