Updated: Jan 3, 2021
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. Obviously we need our SNS for survival. It is key to our daily living. However, as we will see later, when it is in overdrive, or what is known as hyper arousal, it can become detrimental to our health, short-term and long-term.
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 PNS has key connections to your prefrontal cortex, (see below), your lower lungs, (for deep breathing), and your vagal nerve.
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 in uncontrolled environments.
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. For the sake of this blog, I will oversimplify this for you. Your upper brain/frontal lobes - specifically your prefrontal cortex or "rational brain", (PFC) and your lower, reptilian, "emotional", brain - part of your limbic system, both connect with your PNS and SNS respectively - but I'll leave the detail 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, controlled breathing, yoga etc, when in these controlled environments, we also learn to become better friends with our PFC and the limbic system. Practising mindfulness can enhance prefrontal activation, which is correlated with increased well-being and reduced anxiety because we are doing this by 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 to a hyper aroused state, 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?! Virtually impossible isn't it. That is because their reasoning brain, what I call "The Judge", which is the PFC has gone off-line because the primal brain has hijacked the situation). The good news is that the limbic system acts a bit like a bridge between the two. It is the limbic system where autonomic control is centred. And it is the prefrontal-limbic connection (the "conversational" bridge between the PFC and our emotional brain), that is strengthened with the practice of mindful breathing - learning to keep the PFC "online" during SNS arousal, especially in hyper arousal.
Making it practical
Let's say something happens or someone says something that triggers your SNS and therefore causes you to respond with frustration, anger, annoyance, distress, anxiety etc. Your emotional brain is triggered and like a see-saw, it begins to tip the balance of control in its favour, slowly cancelling out the PFC, "The Judge", so it has less ability to slow down the emotional arousal. Before we know it, we act out of our frustration, anxiety, anger. This is when the see-saw is fully weighed down on the side of the emotional brain and the PFC is up in the air, with no feet on the ground. To slow down the arousal of the emotional brain, so it takes longer to trigger an emotional reaction, we need to keep the see-saw balanced, or better still, keep the PFC's feet on the ground for as much of the time as possible. We do this by strengthening that limbic system, the prefrontal-limbic bridge by activating our PNS, (for example, through mindful breathing). This way, "The Judge" of the PFC, can say to the limbic, emotional brain, "it's OK, we don't need to react in that way, or we don't need to feel threatened, or we don't need to get angry like that...". Instead, it offers a more reasoned, balanced and thought through response. Hence the name, The Judge!
A second example is when our SNS is aroused or hyper aroused for prolonged periods of time, like days, weeks or even months. Remaining in this aroused state can have very detrimental consequences to our bodies, mentally, and physically and to our immune system. It can trigger asthma attacks, early onset dementia, depression, digestive disorders like IBS, skin abnormalities like psoriasis, headaches, migraines, insomnia and so much more. Once again, the see-saw has been grounded on the side of the emotional brain, with the SNS in control. Our bodies are not built to function under this level of stress for prolonged periods of time. So how can we re-balance the see-saw and get back to homeostasis, (a balaned internal body environment )? One way is by engaging the PNS through mindful breathing. Doing this daily, we can lower our base stress level to a more "normal" level and allow our body to re-set itself and heal itself, bringing down cortisol levels, blood pressue, heart rate and calming down the limbic brain and hyper aroused emotional responses etc. You see, the chemical levels in our bodies get out of kilt when we are hyper aroused and maintaining unbalanced chemical levels for long periods of time, wreack havoc on our bodies. Reaching homeostasis and maintaining it is how we rebalance those chemical levels once again. Regular mindful breathing is a powerful way to do this.
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 manages regulation of thought, action and emotion, 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. Being able to deal effectiely wih stress, relies on our ability to self-regulate our emotions and responses to them, by having a more connected/balanced limbic system, either via top-down regulation, monitoring and managing our internal responses, which can be increased through mindfulness practice. Or through bottom-up regulation, which is more about resetting the ANS, (autonomic nervouse system), which can be done through controlled breathing. So you can see, that mindful breathing is key to stress managment and everything that in turn means for your health.
I tried and it didn't work
If you are new to mindful breathing and mindfulness practices, it can feel pointless at first and like it just doesn't work for you. This can be due to a number of factors. However, we do know through brain scans that engaging your PNS through mindful breathing does make changes in your brain, whether you sense it or not.
One thing that could be going on here is to do with the "use it or lose it" concept. We now know that the brain is so highly efficient, that it literally gets rid of, (atrophies), the parts of the brain you don't regularly use anymore - so you literally lose it if you don't use it. Have you ever tried to speak a language you've not spoken in ten years after you learnt it at school? You can't. Or have you picked up that musical instrument you learnt in school, twenty years ago and tried to play it as you did back then? You can't. This is because you stopped using the parts of your brain that enabled you to do those things, so your brain got rid of those neural pathways. This is brain/cerebral atrophy.
So, let's say you're someone who lives with a higher base level of stress. This could be due to a stressful childhood, an ongoing stressful job, a longterm stressful marriage or living situation etc. Operating from this higher base level, usually means there is less connection/conversation going on with your prefrontal cortex, (PFC), which is there to help regulate your thoughts, actions and emotions. Therefore your sympathetic nervous system, (SNS), is hyper aroused and in the driving seat. By not conversing regularly through the limbic system, you enter the use it or lose it realm. This means, it is harder for you to engage with your PFC through PNS activation. So when you try doing mindfulness or mindful breathing, it doesn't "feel like" anything is happening. "I tried and it didn't work". What is actually happening, whether you feel it or not, is that your brain is building new neural pathways. To "feel it", you need to build a few of these, and this is done through repetition, in the same way that we form habits. So don't be discouraged if at first you don't feel like you've entered nirvana! Keep going, because the science tells us that each time you engage, the brain builds. Eventually, you will begin to notice or "feel" the difference. This is the opposite of brain/cerebral atrophy because you are building new neural pathways.
Now onto the second environment
During the arousal of your SNS and 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, (hyper arousal), 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. In our controlled environments we have learnt both top-down and bottom-up management of our limbic system. We take this learning into our uncontrolled environments of the "real world", so that we have a better relationship with people and the situations we face on a daily basis. This is why retreating to our controlled environments and practicing our mindful breathing, regularly is key to our daily lives, especially whe we want to live a more emotionally balanced, controlled, less anxious, and healthy life.
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.