How can the experience of stress and anxiety be reduced by the breath?
Well deep within each of us is a nervous system and in that we have two main branches: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS contains a further sub-division called the autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of regulating all involuntary responses such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and digestion.
Now although these all occur automatically, the breath is unique in the sense that it is the only function we are able to consciously control. This is why the breath is so valuable, as it essentially provides us with a key to ‘nervous system regulation’. In other words, when we breath right we can release anxiety and stress by soothing the nervous system.
Within the autonomic nervous system, there are a further two branches – the sympathetic (which is related to fight/flight/freeze) and the parasympathetic (which is related to rest/digest/relaxation). During times of high stress or anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and the stress hormone cortisol floods the body; heart rate and breathing rate increase and we often experience a number of uncomfortable emotions.
At this very moment, the breath becomes our best friend! It is our magic tool that can regulate our nervous system and bring us out of fight/flight/freeze mode and straight into rest and relaxation.
So, perhaps next time you find yourself feeling overly anxious, panicked or stressed, have a go at taking several long, slow (5-7 seconds), deep breaths. In through the nose, and out through the nose (or mouth). This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and you are likely to experience greater feelings of clarity, rest and relaxation. This is a wonderful tool that can be skillfully used throughout your day to lower levels of high anxiety!
By Izzy Cloke, Mindfulness Teacher at the Koorana Centre, Ardingly