Updated: Oct 9
So far, we have talked about the key to unconscious and conscious breathing in Blog Key 1. We have learnt about the key of deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, it's mechanics and importance to our wellbeing in blog 2.
Now it's time to dig a little deeper into our understanding of exactly how conscious, deep breathing helps us to relax, and how breathing connects our mind and body. Breathing is the key to calming the mind and relaxing the body.
Time to say hello to your nervous system, or more to the point, your autonomic nervous system, or ANS. Promise not to get too technical, so do stay with me as it's important to understand this. It will also support future blog keys.
Your ANS works mostly unconsciously, involuntarily, (hence it's name), dealing with bodily activities like blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, urination and sexual arousal. It just sorts it all out, every second, every minute, hour, and day of your life. And you don't need to give it a thought. Until you do! Why? Because it houses the primary system controlling your fight-or-flight responses. In the infamous words of The Clash, "Should I stay or should I go now?"
The ANS has two sides, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The former, (flight or fight), gets us ready for battle, the latter, (feed and breed!), gets us ready for bed. The two sides produce contrasting but complementary responses.
(For completeness - There is actually a third part to the ANS, which is the enteric nervous system, but we won't need to deal with that one here.)
Sympathetic (Autonomic) Nervous System - SNS
This is your fight or flight control centre.
Think of it as the fast response system, your smoke detector, the cerebral ears pricking up and paying attention to keep you safe. It's the side that pumps adrenalin, (a neurotransmitter), and the stress hormone cortisol, (a steroid hormone), around your body, helping you deal with stressful situations and getting you ready for physical action. It's a reason athletes take short, quick breaths in, to psych themselves up before racing. It's also the system that can keep you awake at night and if hard-wired into an always-on position, is responsible for the situation insomniacs find themselves in.
Parasympathetic (Autonomic) Nervous System - PNS
Whereas your SNS acts like your internal accelerator, your PNS is your inner brake! It is all about the conservation of energy and your resting state, the slowing of your heart rate and the lowering of your blood pressure. It relaxes the muscles, returns breathing from an excited or agitated state, which is often using shallow breathing and focused on inhalation, to a more relaxed, controlled, deeper and regular breathing, focused on exhaling.
Your breathing key - Breathing in, activates your sympathetic nervous system. While breathing out, activates your parasympathetic nervous system.
Armed with this knowledge, there are two ways in which you can use it to help you achieve a new you, and I'll explain them both now. The first is in a controlled environment while the second takes place during the arousal or your SNS.
Hold on to your seats though, we're about to put your brain cells to work...
Firstly the controlled environment.
Think yoga or Pilates classes, or a meditation or mindfulness session or just a quiet time. It's an environment you have control over and one in which you are in direct control of your breathing. You are consciously thinking about your breathing. It is in this resting state, that your heart rate is under the control or your parasympathetic nervous system, which is why it is important to engage with your PNS in your controlled environment. It is in these environments we can begin to train our brains and our bodies, to get more in tune with our PNS.
There is also a connection to be made here between brain function and your nervous system. Your upper brain - specifically your prefrontal cortex, (PFC) and your lower, reptilian, (emotional), brain - part of your limbic system, both connect with your SNS and PNS - but I'll leave this for another blog. (Your PFC is where you go to work things out, overthink, reason, ponder, work through your goals and values etc). Suffice to say, that as we learn to activate our PNS through mindfulness, meditation, yoga etc, when in these controlled environments. We also learn to become better friends with our PFC. Practising mindfulness can enhance prefrontal activation, which is correlated with increased well-being and reduced anxiety because we are also engaging the PNS.
This is important, because the rage, anger, anxiety and any out of control "negative" emotions that are entwined with our SNS, (increasing heart rate and blood pressure and adrenaline flow etc), come from our emotional "control panel", the primal brain. When triggered, the primal brain can literally hijack the whole brain, stopping the PFC from joining the conversation. (Ever tried to reason with someone while they are "flying off the handle" in anger?!) Now the limbic system acts a bit like a bridge. It is the limbic system where autonomic control is centred. And it is the prefrontal-limbic connection, that is strengthened with the practice of mindfulness - learning to keep the PFC "online" during SNS arousal.
Now, a little side note - All this talk about resting in your controlled environment and connecting with your prefrontal cortex, (PFC), is usually more easily achieved by introverts than extroverts! Why? Well, did you know their brains are actually "wired" differently? An extrovert accesses shorter neural pathways to the "reward centre" of the brain, requiring external stimuli for entertainment and reward and has its best friend in the neurotransmitter dopamine. While the introvert travels the longer pathways via the prefrontal cortex for self-stimulation with its BFF being the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. I'm obviously simplifying all this, but it's enough to give you the gist. With around 70% of the Western population being extroverts, a lot of people will not find sitting in their controlled environments for extended periods of time, very natural or very rewarding! So it is important to be aware of this and to persevere if this is you. The slight downside for the introvert is that by living in the frontal lobe, they spend a lot of time "inside their head", dealing with their inner voice. This inner voice is something we'll look at in Blog Key 8.
FUN FACT: The frontal lobes of your brain, which manage feeling and thinking, do not fully mature until we are about 30 years old!
Tying this all together then - Learning to have a greater understanding of your PNS and how to engage it, keeping breathing controlled, heart rate down, giving external stimulation little power, while engaging and maintaining stimulation of your PFC, allows you a much greater wall of defence when your SNS is triggered. It also enables you to "bring yourself back down to ground zero", should you get caught unawares, by the stimulation of your SNS and hijacking by your inner emotional brain.
This takes us to the second environment
During the arousal of your SNS. By this I mean when you're not having a Mary Poppins moment! In moments of fear, anger, rage, shock, exertion, your SNS is in the driving seat, along with the emotional side of your limbic brain, (as mentioned above). In extreme rage and anger, the PFC is pretty much cut out of the picture.
It is in these SNS arousal moments, that we need to consciously use what we've learnt in our controlled environments, to engage our PNS, and bring down the anger, rage, heart rate, blood pressure by slowing our breathing and bringing it under control.
Remember your key here. When we inhale, we trigger our SNS. When we exhale, we trigger our PNS.
This is why, when breathing in our controlled environments - (see blog 4), we exhale for longer than we inhale. By learning to do this consciously, we are better able to engage our PNS when we most need to - during moments of stress, anxiety, anger, upset or even rage. The time it takes the brain to go from rage, (emotional limbic control), to calmness, (brain back in balance and PFC now able to "speak" sense and reason once again), is shortened the more we learn to engage our PNS. Studies have shown that those who meditate regularly, require a shorter amount of time to go from one to the other, than those who do not.
So, now that you have a new understanding of the connection between your autonomic nervous system, your brain and your breathing in and out, let's move on to your first breathing exercises. You are now ready to put wheels on your new life of inner peace, harmony and many Mary Poppins' moments! Blog 4 awaits you.