Breath and the Autonomic Nervous System
Breathing shallowly is a life-saving autonomic nervous system response to stress. But the stresses of contemporary life can keep our bodies in a chronic state of emergency, with a chronic pattern of shallow breathing. This “stress breath” disturbs the oxygen/CO2 balance in our bodies. A vicious circle is established: anxiety leads to rapid breathing, while the body’s consequent biochemical imbalance triggers alarm. The heart has to work harder to move less-oxygenated blood around the body.
We are meant to discharge enormous amounts of toxins with our breath. When our respiratory system is not working efficiently, there are unnecessary demands on other systems and organs including the kidneys, the liver and the skin. Feelings of fatigue, disquiet and distraction become ordinary.
A rapid, shallow “stress breath” prepares us to fight or flee. It is part of the autonomic nervous system response that stops us from feeling, physically and emotionally, as our attention is directed to the external threat. Digestion stops and sexual response is inhibited. Physical energy is diverted to the muscles, and mental energy is directed to the external environment. When the fight-or-flight response is activated, we are at odds with the world around us. And when we cannot fight or flee, another branch of the nervous system gets activated. We dissociate. We feel shut down, frozen and numb. The breath contributes to this process, and it also provides a way we can begin to dialogue with this process.
You can begin by simply noticing when your fight-or-flight response, or your dissociative response, is activated. Notice whether the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual effects of this activation are important resources in a given situation. And only if and when it feels safe, try experimenting.
You can consciously change from flight, fight or freeze modes by speeding up or slowing down your breathing. As you learn to regulate your autonomic nervous system responses, you will become more confident and comfortable in your skin.
Hyperventilation and the Reset Button Breath
You may be afraid of hyperventilating as you begin to experience the extraordinary feelings of well-being that emerge with sustained deep breath. In fact, many stressed and anxious people walk around in a chronic state of mild hyperventilation. Short, shallow, high-chest “stress-breaths” can cause excessive elimination of carbon dioxide. When CO2 levels in the blood decrease, oxygen is bound more tightly to hemoglobin in the blood, so it is not released to the tissues as readily. The biochemical imbalance elevates the blood pressure and changes the body’s PH. It exacerbates nervous system distress. Chronic hyperventilation can have devastating short-term and long-term physical and psychological consequences. Deep abdominal breathing, in most people, encourages biochemical and nervous system balance. Still, if you feel stressed by a fear of the effects of deep breathing, this concern can in itself lead to hyperventilation by triggering a stress response.
A useful tool for addressing your concerns about chronic or momentary hyperventilation is Dr. Gay Hendricks “Reset Button Breath.” To begin this breath, exhale fully. Wait, and wait a little longer, until you feel a real need to breathe. Then breathe deeply into the abdomen. Done for several minutes, the Reset Button Breath brings oxygen and carbon dioxide into balance in our system. As Dr. Hendricks notes, you can practice this breath anywhere, anytime, to counteract the effects of stress and to increase your sense of well-being, relaxation and mental clarity.
Breath and the Emotions
Shallow breath allows us to shut down our emotions so we can fight or flee more effectively. When we learn to breathe for well-being, we also learn to feel a fuller range of emotions. Students of Sexological Bodywork often get in touch with both positive and negative feelings that seem to rise up spontaneously from the body as we breathe. Deep, full breathing can release tears and laughter. Simply acknowledging and breathing into a feeling can clear it.
The practice of conscious breathing can alleviate anxiety, depression, everyday stress, post-traumatic stress and stress-related medical illnesses. We can do all this without diagnosing and sharing the origin and meaning of these conditions – although that can be an important and valuable process. But as a body-based educator, I help people contend with stress, trauma and emotional turmoil through their bodies, with their breath.
Breath can teach the autonomic nervous system to shift from fight-or-flight vigilance to rest-and-digest acceptance. We can learn to practice detachment, with mindful awareness of our emotions, and this empowers us. Deep breath can release us from the prison of flattened affect, so we can feel the full range of our emotion–sorrow, rage, fear and excitement, joy, pleasure.
Handling more Positive Energy
Working with the breath, we can increase our ability to handle positive energy. Dr. Gay Hendricks observes that many people will create negativity when they feel good, simply because feeling good is so unfamiliar. “Being happy, organically high and successful is unfamiliar territory. When we stray into it, we often bring ourselves back into the familiar world of suffering and restriction.” Physiologically, breath can be used to retrain the nervous system so that it can tolerate a higher charge. Emotionally, conscious breath practice allows us to encounter and release the limits we all have to how good we can feel, which may arise as shame, traumatic memories, fear, anxiety or anger. We can feel into and clear out barriers to self-love and to giving and receiving love from others. Mentally, we can learn to encounter and breathe through the pleasure-inhibiting effects of early-life teachings, sticky stereotypes, self-judgment and limiting beliefs. Spiritually, we can learn to explore and embrace a capacity for inspiration with each breath.