How Your Breathing Affects Your Mental and Physical Health
Have you ever noticed how you breathe?
Most of us don’t even give it a second thought. If we are alive, then we are breathing right?
Maybe we start to notice how we are breathing if we are exercising hard and gasping for oxygen. Or, we definitely notice our breathing when we feel panicked and about to have a panic attack.
What most of us don’t know is that the quality of our breathing can be an important indicator of our mental and physical health.
So, why is this important?
Because one of the first things that are affected when we are chronically stressed is our breathing. A nervous system that is stressed causes rapid, shallow breathing. When we form a chronic pattern of rapid, shallow breathing then we create a nervous system that is operating under chronic stress, which, in turn, affects your mental and physical health.
Using Breath To Access The Stress Response
Breathing is one of the best ways to get access to our Stress System (the Fight/Flight/Freeze system) and help it get back to a relaxed state where optimal health occurs.
Take a breath in right now. Are you breathing into your chest or into your belly? If you notice your chest expanding when you breathe then you are likely breathing on a shallow level. Your breath stops at your sternum and doesn’t go deeper into your belly expanding your diaphragm.
Take a minute now to breathe deeply into your belly. While breathing in expand your diaphragm and belly. When you exhale allow your belly to go back in. This is how we were born to breathe. When you watch a baby breath you can see their belly rising and falling.
In addition to stress creating a pattern of shallow breathing, many of us have also been conditioned to pull in our bellies for proper posture. We become accustomed to a belly that stays pulled in, but this interferes with taking full deep breaths and signaling our nervous system to relax.
Using Breath To Change Our Experience Of Stress
Deep, slow breathing helps us to move from a chronic stress response back into a state of BALANCE…because it is a balance that we really want to help us create optimal health. A nervous system that is in balance is one that is calm and regulated in the face of stress. Keep in mind that it is not about NOT experiencing stress because we cannot avoid it…we are all human after all. Instead, the shift in mindset here is about HOW we experience stress and changing our nervous system response to stress.
If we don’t resolve the stress then it tends to live on and on in our bodies creating a chronic stress response.
Breath is an incredible tool to help us shift our response to stress and immediately activate the relaxation, rest and repair part of our nervous system.
Taking Control Of The Chronic Stress Response
Breath is a very ancient tool that only recently the science has proven is an incredible healing tool to access the automatic stress response happening in the Autonomic Nervous System. This is the part of our nervous system that we cannot control, and it can go off on a tangent creating high blood pressure, anxiety, sweaty palms, panic responses, as well as pain and ill health. By doing deep belly breathing we are hacking into our Parasympathetic Nervous System to activate it via the Vagus Nerve.
The Vagus nerve is a nerve, known as the “wandering nerve” that travels from the brain stem into the body and innervates almost all the organ systems. It is responsible for creating the relaxation response in our bodies and telling our organs that it’s ok to go back to normal functioning. When we are chronically stressed (even though we may not know it), the Vagus nerve is not able to send the relaxation response to our organ systems and back up to our brain. Stressful life experiences and traumatic situations can also “wire” us to have a lower “vagal tone” resulting in chronic stress response and more ill health in our minds and bodies.
But doing deep breathing can create higher “vagal tone” resulting in a more robust nervous system that can handle stress much better without the ill effects of it. Essentially, when we deep breathe we are telling our bodies we are SAFE in the face of whatever stress is happening around us. The stress can happen around us but we don’t need to let it happen within us! Or at the very least, we are able to create a different response in our nervous system with vagal breathing.
Toning your Vagus nerve with breath can induce your body to feel relaxed, go back into balance and start to self-heal. When we are in Fight/Flight/Freeze we cannot digest and assimilate foods well, we cannot heal from illness. When we are in Rest/Repair/Digest…then our bodies are more balanced and can function well.
The best way to breathe to create better vagal tone and activate the relaxation response is to:
- Breathe deeply into the belly, whereby you’re expanding the diaphragm, AND
- Have a longer out breath than the in breath
With a longer and slower out breath, you are stimulating the Vagus nerve to go into a relaxed state and send this messaging into your nervous system to move out of Fight/Flight/Freeze and into Rest/Repair and Digest.
Transforming Your Stress Response Through Habit Creation
The best way to develop a new habit is to tie it into a habit you already have. Like going to the bathroom! Every time you go to the bathroom you can remind yourself to do some Vagus nerve breathing. You can also do it just before you eat. This will help immensely for you to digest and assimilate your food better and have fewer stomach disturbances. You can do it during meetings or working on the computer. Many of us hold our breath when hurrying to type emails and documents. You can also do it while on your smartphone on social media!
You can also practice more regulated deep breathing every day by using Unyte’s iom2 biofeedback device with the many interactive Journeys available. Unyte helps you learn relaxation skills through engaging content and beautiful breathing exercises.
Creating Optimal Health Through Breathing
In conclusion, the breath is really the easiest tool at your disposal to hack into the chronic stress response that may be operating under the radar in your subconscious system. The more you practice the Vagus nerve breathing, or a deeper more regulated breathing habit, the more you are training your nervous system to go into a balanced and relaxed state, thus boosting your immune system and creating an optimal state of health.
The science and research indicate that deep breathing and toning the Vagus nerve helps to decrease inflammation and improve immune system regulation, metabolism, emotional regulation, and improve anxiety and depression symptoms too. It also helps with cravings and optimal brain focus and functioning.
I encourage you to try it and see how you feel. If you feel good, I encourage you to develop a habit of doing this breathing every day, throughout your day, as it can really transform your reaction to stress, boost your immune system and create better health in your mind and body!
Afshan Tafler is a Whole Life Coach who helps you discover your power to transform your health and your life. Through a combination of Mind-Body Coaching and transformational, scientifically proven energy psychology techniques, her expertise is to help you reprogram your mind and body for optimal health. You can connect with Afshan at www.illuminateu.ca.