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Painted Brain | Using Breathwork To Help Manage Chronic Stress
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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Using Breathwork to Help Manage Chronic Stress

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The Importance of Breathing

It may seem obvious that breathing is important to our health, but the extent to which breathing can be used to support our health can easily go unappreciated. Breathing is essential to every system in your body. Efficient breathing supports your mental clarity, the quality of your sleep, efficient food digestion. It improves your immune system’s ability to function and even helps reduce your stress levels.

The Vagus Nerve

One important component in your body when it comes to breathing is the vagus nerve, which is one of your 12 cranial nerves that connect our brain to our body. Each cranial nerve has unique functions. The vagus nerve, called “the wanderer,” travels from the brainstem to different regions of the body to perform both motor and sensory duties.

The vagus nerve carries sensory information from your ear, throat, and different organs in your chest and abdomen, like the heart and intestines. It also carries information for motor control of the muscles in your throat and organs, such as the muscles that move food through your digestive tract.

This vagus nerve is considered your body’s “communication highway” because it branches out like many roads to so many different parts of your body to communicate important sensory and motor information.

[Related: The vagus nerve: your secret weapon in fighting stress]

The Nervous System

If you zoom out from the vagus nerve, you’d see that it is part of the nervous system. The nervous system includes your brain, your spinal cord, and a variety of nerves that help you communicate with the outside world and also allow your brain, voluntarily or involuntarily, to control the many important functions of your body. 

The nervous system has two main modes: sympathetic and parasympathetic. 

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for your body’s rest and digest state. In this mode, your brain and body are focused on important self-maintenance tasks like digestion and cell repair. During this state, your heartbeat slows down and your digestive system and liver are stimulated to digest your food and extract nutrients. 

When your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, you feel calm and you can think clearly. You have a relaxed heart rate and your breathing is steady.

The vagus nerve plays an important role within the PNS because some of its many duties are to send messages to your heart to slow the heart rate and send messages to your digestive system to increase digestion.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), on the other hand, is responsible for your flight-or-fight response, or “Stress State”. When this mode is engaged, your body is prepared to face a threat, so your pupils dilate to let in more light, your heart rate increases to pump more blood to your muscles in case you need to run or fight, and your airways open wide to let in more oxygen. Meanwhile, your digestion system halts because digesting food isn’t a priority when you’re in a dangerous situation.

When your sympathetic nervous system is engaged, you’ll feel anxious or scared. You’ll likely have a hard time thinking clearly. You may experience shortness of breath or even stomach discomfort or pain such as nausea. 

Certain experiences or changes in your emotions can cause your body to switch from one mode to the other. Maybe you get into an argument with a family member. Maybe you are having a hectic busy day and it’s stressing you out. These aren’t life-threatening situations, but our sympathetic nervous system could still be triggered by stressful situations like these. Once you’re in the sympathetic mode, dealing with the physical effects of that state can make it even harder for you to address whatever it is that is stressing you out.

Essentially, you don’t want to be in the sympathetic “stress state” unless you really need to be–unless it’s actually needed to protect you from some kind of danger. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it can be hard for us to get out of the sympathetic “stress state” if we struggle with chronic stress or anxiety.

Breathwork for the Vagus Nerve

This is where breathwork comes into play. Breathing exercises, such as slow abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and help lower the stress responses of the sympathetic nervous system.

Breathing exercises are not only accessible, but they are also one of the most beneficial to relax your body when you feel stressed or nervous. Breathing is free and can be done anywhere–in the car, on the bus, in an elevator, in bed before going to sleep. Even 5 deep breaths can be helpful to calm your body and clear your mind.

Here are some tips for diaphragmatic breathing you can try the next time you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious:

  • Take deep, slow breaths from the lower part of your lungs, between your chest and belly button, as opposed to high up in your chest.
  • Practice regularly to build up the habit of implementing breathing exercises. This habit will make it easier to implement this practice during acute times of stress or anxiety.
  • Even 5 breaths on a regular basis can be helpful.
  • Exhale longer than you inhale.
  • Breathe through your nose, mouth, or both. Whatever feels more comfortable to you.
  • Be aware of your body position and any tension your body is holding. Find a position that accommodates deep breathing and relaxation by providing your lungs space to expand.
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