It’s an automatic process our bodies accomplish… our lungs fill with air upon inhale, then empty again through an exhale… about 12 to 20 breaths per minute, all day long. That adds up to 17,000-30,000 breaths per day — or more if you exercise. Each breath sends necessary oxygen to each of the body’s cells. Exhaling rids the body of things it doesn’t need, like carbon dioxide. Amazing that something so vital to life happens without much thought or effort on our part.
Thankfully we don’t have to think about breathing because it happens automatically. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the body’s vital functions like respiration, heartbeat, glandular secretions, salivation and perspiration, mostly beyond our conscious awareness. The ANS includes the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is the part of the nervous system that ramps up when a stressor is perceived. Your breath rate and heart rate quicken, your palms sweat, anxiety rises… adrenalin flows through your body preparing you for “fight or flight.” While this flow of adrenalin can be useful in certain situations, it leaves our bodies in a state of anxiety for hours past the onset of the stressor.
In order to bring our bodies back to homeostasis, the body employs the parasympathetic nervous system. The PNS puts on the brakes from the adrenalin rush by slowing down the breath rate and heart rate and opening blood vessels in the GI tract, aiding in digestion. The PNS is responsible for the steady-state activity of the body and helps us to feel relaxed and content. In short, this quote from Train Your Brain describes it best: “SNS is for ‘fight and flight,’ the PNS helps you ‘rest and digest.’”
So if all of this happens without our intentional thought… do we have any control over these processes? Of course, there is that point where you take over control of your breathing, and your conscious brain can impact the ANS. You can choose to take a deeper breath for speech or smelling something. According to medical research, you can lessen the effects of the SNS and stress by engaging the PNS. You can train your body to have a different reaction and slow the body’s production of stress hormones. Here’s how…
If you want to engage your parasympathetic wing of the ANS, try this simple and effective technique.
- Take some deep, full breaths.
- When you inhale, fill your lungs fully, hold for a second or so, and then exhale in a relaxed way.
- Continue breathing this way for one minute.
These deep, long inhalations expand your bronchioles which triggers the PNS to bring them back to their “resting” size.
And use these quick tips to help your body to relax:
- Relax your tongue
- Relax your eyes
- Relax the diaphragm area
- Imagine being in a very comfortable setting
- Feel everything draining out of you and sinking deep into the earth
With a little practice, you can learn to activate the built-in relaxation mechanism that brings your mind and body back to peace and calm.