How To Breathe To Engage The Parasympathetic Nervous System And Calm Down

Did you know that by taking even just a minute to slow your breathing and focus on it enough to deepen your inhale and make your exhale as long as possible, you are actually signaling to your nervous system that all is well and both your mind and body will calm down?  

It’s true!  

To understand how this works, let’s review what our amazing Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is, shall we?  The ANS is responsible for controlling the activities of organs and involuntary muscles like the heart and smooth muscles.  Because the ANS oversees and directs them to do their good work in their world (our bodies), these all function harmoniously without us consciously thinking, “Beat, heart, beat…. Release acid, stomach…. Hey, liver, I think now would be a good time to secrete sugars and enzymes…”  

The ANS is made up of two parts:  Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.  The Sympathetic Nervous System is the part of our physiological stimuli that signals us to respond with increased action.  This is where the ever-famous “fight or flight” response comes from.  The Sympathetic Nervous System tells the heart to speed up and the mind to become increasingly alert.  The Parasympathetic Nervous System activates more tranquil responses in the body like a lower heart rate and releasing saliva when something smells yummy.

Our primitive mind is wired to look for stressors — that’s why it’s so much easier to recall negative thoughts or get caught up in dramatic imaginings than positive ones.  That’s also why when we are stressed we tend to become more scatterbrained or overwhelmed with fearful thoughts of what might be.  What sometimes feels like a fluke (to me, at least) because we seem to become stuck in an uncontrollable loop of negativity, is technically a protective measure of the Sympathetic Nervous System.  The good news is, the human brain has been found to be quite elastic and this pattern is easily shiftable by mindfully engaging our breath.  

Yes, our breath.  

Breathing is a conscious action we can take on the more superficial level to signal to our behind-the-scenes automatic self.  A miracle of being human if you ask me!

 

***My 8 year old daughter walked into my office at this point in this writing as I was reading it aloud from the beginning to make sure it flows sensibly and she listened attentively.  When I was done her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she simply said, “Whoooooaaaa.  That’s cool!”  It really is, isn’t it?!  We should all take a moment every now and again to acknowledge the coolness — for lack of a better term — of being human.***

 

I digress…

Doing relaxed breathing exercises on a regular basis when we are not experiencing stressful circumstances is a healthy effort that can help us stay calm more often.  This practice can generally lead us to have calmer responses to stressors.  Think about it, when your best friend is super stressed and freaking out, isn’t your first instinct to tell her to breathe?  

When we practice pranayama* as part of a weekly routine, we learn to automatically slow down our anxiety with the breath.  Over time we become more calmly responsive and trusting in the face of negative tension.  Taking those settling breaths in the midst of angst becomes second nature.  Or at least a little easier.

*Pranayama simply means, “breathing exercises.”  The Sanskrit word translates into life sustaining energy — or breath (prana) being drawn out (ayama).

The reason I prefer a breath-centered, flowing yoga practice is because it includes constant calming pranayama.  The body only moves once and inhalation or exhalation has been activated.  The breath is the trigger that sets off the reaction of movement in the body.  The breath is slow, deep and long so the body moves gently even into the most advanced postures while the mind slows down its chattery thought patterns.  I recommend practicing mindfully flowing yoga with attention on the breath as well as focused breathing exercises as part of a regular routine.

You won’t always have a lot of time to do a full yoga sequence.  I totally get that.  So, below I’m outlining a simple breathing exercise you can do every single day, to generate a more naturally calm state throughout your entire being by conjuring your brilliant Parasympathetic Nervous System.

This exercise is so simple, you can even do it in public without looking like a “weirdo.”  LOL! 

 

copyrightmagareeshimountainmeditating.jpg

 

STEP 1:  NASAL BREATHING

One of the most effective yet simple ways to beckon a soothing internal response from the Parasympathetic Nervous System is to slowly breathe through the nose.  When we are stressed we tend to breathe in a panting-like manner, quicker shallow breaths through the mouth.  Nasal breathing is naturally slower.  So, to start a calming breathing practice, simply breathe as deeply and slowly through your nose whenever it occurs for you to do so.

The first step in most mindfulness programs is to simply pay attention.  So by taking little breaks throughout your days to pay full attention to your breath, you are becoming more mindful.  Look at you, all monk-like and stuff!

Before moving onto Step 2, take at least 1-5 minutes engaging in this deep, slow nasal breathing:  

  • Sit up nice and tall with your shoulders in a relaxed position drawn backward and downward to softly open the chest.  Let the natural sway of the lower back remain intact, but don’t over-sway and jut out the lower ribs.  Line up the shoulders over the hips and the chin over the belly button.

 

  • Notice the current rhythm of your breath.  Does it feel stuck or tight anywhere along the way?  Are your inhales and exhales short or long?  Don’t judge, just notice.

 

  • When you feel ready, slow that rhythm down.  Take deep, slow breaths through the nose into the lungs.  Work to fully expand through the ribcage, diaphragm, and mid-back with each inhalation.  See if you can take a teensy pause between your inhales and exhales, holding the breath in or out.  Just be calm and quiet during the little pause.

 

  • Blow your nose if it gets stuffy or runny and begin again.

 

 

STEP 2:  EXHALATION ELONGATION (this would make a good name for a Jazz record)

Now that you’ve centered yourself with nasal breathing, it’s time to do the deeper work that will bring forth a tranquility response from your Parasympathetic Nervous System.

  • Take a deep slow breath in through the nose.

 

  • Softly pause before exhaling.

 

  • Exhale quietly through the mouth for as long as you can.  This exhale will be longer than the inhale was — almost like if you were singing and holding out a note.  The breath should not be forced out in any way.  Let it be released gently, incrementally.  Do feel a small engagement at the top of the diaphragm as you push out the last bit of the exhale, but this is a natural engagement.  You are not to pull the belly back or thrust the chest down at all.  Keep the shoulders relaxed.

 

  • Repeat for 1 minute.  For most people this will be somewhere between 5 and 8 breaths.  Try to calm the thoughts in your mind by only paying attention to your breathing.  It can help by thinking, “I am inhaling.  Inhale.”  / “I am exhaling.  Exhale.”  That way your mind has something to do at the cognitive level and won’t wander so much.

 

  • As you enjoy this practice, increase the time you spend doing it to up to 5 minutes.

 

 

I hope this practice brings you closer to a sense of reverence for being human, for being YOU.  I wish for you to find a calm state more often, especially in stressful times.  There are always going to be stressors in our lives, but our response can be shifted from fight-or-flight to one of trust and calm clarity.