Breathing to control the nervous system

Breathing to control the nervous system

The nervous system, we couldn’t live without it. This intricate physiological system essentially controls everything we do. It is our source of internal communication, with nerves running through the entirety of the body – carrying messages for the mind to interpret, process and then make appropriate actions. This whole body system includes our brain, spinal cord and all the approximate trillions of nerves and nerve cells in the human body. Woah. 

Breathing patterns are a consequence of our autonomic nervous system, alongside other functions such as the constant beat of our heart, blood flow, regulation of our internal temperature and our ability to digest foods. These are processes that the body, quite cleverly, completes without any conscious effort therefore freeing our brain to busy itself processing all the other and unexpected information we encounter in day to day life. 

Our nervous system reacts to our surroundings and our breath coincides with these changes subconsciously. This is a system established from birth. As a baby wakes and begins to roll and move, their breathing pattern quickens as their body becomes more heightened and aware of the world around them. Conversely, as they start to tire and head back towards sleep, breathing will gradually slow down helping them to relax and rest. We carry on with these reactionary adaptations to daily life as we grow older. Our natural responsiveness allows us to react to the world by matching our internal rhythm with situations we find ourselves in.  

We can split these two functions into the sympathetic and parasympathetic sides of the nervous system. 

Our sympathetic reaction is often referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ response. This system switches on when we find ourselves in situations of stress. For a short amount of time the body produces adrenaline and other hormones to help us deal with this perceived threat. There is a biological function here, where the body prepares itself to best cope with an imminent danger, such as running from a predator, or perhaps in a more modern day environment, desperately trying to meet a deadline. 

The other side of this is our parasympathetic response, also known as ‘rest and digest’. This is where the body returns to homeostasis after a period of perceived threat. In this state, breathing slows and heart rate decreases allowing the body’s other functions such as digestion to operate with ease. These two systems in balance allow us to deal with the changing circumstances we find ourselves in. 

Consider your everyday life. How much time do you spend in a heightened state, moving with a sense of urgency as if running for your life? On the flip side, how often do you truly give the body to rest? (We’re talking real, no distractions, no screen, rest here). Chances are we spend a whole lot of our lives somewhere between these two states.  

“It’s much more common, especially in the modern world, to never experience full blown, life-threatening stress, but to never fully relax either. We’ll spend our days half-asleep and nights half-awake, lolling in a grey zone of half-anxiety. When we do, the vagus nerve stays half-stimulated”. Breath, James Nestor. 

So we know there’s a disconnect between the way we live and the way we breathe. How can we reconnect with our natural nervous system response to create a sense of balance? 

The first step is to begin to acknowledge your breath throughout the day. By bringing awareness to the pace and quality of your breath you can start to notice points when the breath feels tighter, shorter or restricted as well as equally noting the times when the breath is lengthy and calm. 

Once we’ve established this awareness, there are also techniques we can use to help control our nervous system. This allows us to match the body’s breath count and quality to the tasks and situations ahead of us – either stimulating our fight or flight response to deal with a stressful situation, or helping to calm everything back down after by focusing on a breath to aid our rest and digest system. 

We may want to activate our sympathetic response if we are feeling a little sluggish and lethargic, using controlled breathing to bring the body to a greater state of wakefulness.  

Focus on the inhale here, allowing the exhale to be passive and easy. Placing the hands on the belly, breath in strongly through the nose. Exhale through the nose with an ease and lightness. Complete ten rounds before returning to a natural slow breath. I find this technique really helpful first thing in the morning – or before an important meeting or interview. 

More frequently we find ourselves wanting to stimulate our parasympathetic, or more restful, response.  

A technique we can try here is a ‘feather breath’ where our attention is placed on the lengthening of our exhale. Begin by breathing in through the nose. At the top of your breath create a small parting in your lips before breathing out through this parting as if blowing a feather in front of the face. Repeat for ten rounds, seeing if you can lengthen the exhale with each round and focusing on an effortless quality and smooth sound of the breath out. This technique is great for times when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, providing a space to take a pause and slow things right down.