“Healthy Foundations” are simple, daily lifestyle habits that, when incorporated into your daily rhythm, can contribute to a happier, healthier You.
By: Dr. Richard Vuksinic, ND, London, Ontario
DEEP BREATHING: A Catalyst for Connecting To The Relaxation Response
Breathing. It’s important, right? Yet, so many of us, when caught up in the stresses of the day, forget to breathe properly. Deep breathing is foundational to managing stress, and benefits our physiology in so many ways. Did you know that diaphragmatic breathing can curb anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve cognitive function? By remaining connected to our breath, we remain more connected to our bodies. This self awareness is critical to ensuring that we hear what our body needs, well before the symptoms have to speak LOUD enough for us to hear them painfully. Connecting to our breath facilitates our capacity to connect to our nervous system in ways that promote balance and healing within our physiological and psychological selves.
Want to learn how to ensure that you take 100 deep breaths a day, without even trying? Scroll down to read about the STICKER TRICK, or continue reading if you want to learn more about the benefits of breathing, and engaging the relaxation response.
Breathing into the Relaxation Response
Breathing is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the unconscious, automatic branch of the nervous system responsible for controlling breath, digestion, organ function etc… When we are chronically stressed, our nervous system is engaged in the fight-or-flight/sympathetic branch (SNS) of the ANS. When engaged in the SNS response our breathing is generally more rapid, and often shallower. When the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) (also known as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system) is online, our breathing and heart rate tend to be deeper and slower. Generally, we can say that the SNS is responsible for survival and responses to threat, while the PNS nourishes and revitalizes, via the ‘relaxation response’.
The PNS regulates smooth muscle tone, digestion (regular bowel movements), slower heart rate, sexual arousal and many other physiological processes responsible for re-vitalizing the body. The ventral vagal branch of the PNS facilitates our ability for social engagement, and may increase our capacity to experience pleasure and joy (see poly vagal theory). So, when we are always on the go, without any real down time, we are functioning in ‘fight or flight’ (SNS), which does NOT allow the PNS to come on line. Instead, our nervous system becomes entrained (gets stuck) and we spend much of our time in sympathetic overdrive (think: irritability, anxiety, shallow breathing, stress, poor digestion and sleep). Wouldn’t it be nice to engage the PNS more often; to feel pleasure, joy and calm?
To minimize the fight or flight response’s command of our nervous system, it is important to consistently break the cycle of SNS overstimulation. Breathing is the perfect tool to help accomplish this. While breathing is regulated unconsciously, via the ANS, we also have the capacity to control our breath consciously. This is one of the great gifts of the breath! By consciously engaging the body’s capacity to take deep breaths, regularly throughout the day, we can help shunt our stress response in the direction of the PNS, and thus toward a more restorative and relaxed version of our selves.
HERE’S HOW: THE STICKER TRICK
This is a simple, behavioural technique to help build the habit of deep breathing in to the rhythm of your day.
- A pack of these small stickers (from your local office supply store).
- Clean surfaces where you can stick ’em.
- Orient to your space. Think of 3-6 objects that you look at frequently throughout the day. This could include your smart phone (protective case), water bottle, computer screen, Fit Bit, the clock at work etc…
- Give yourself a sticker. Stick 1 sticker on at least 3 of these objects. Orient the sticker in a way that won’t compromise the function of your device, but also in a way that ensures that the sticker will be visible whenever you glance at the object.
- Sticker as behavioural cue. EVERY time you catch a glimpse of a sticker, take a few seconds to ‘check-in’ with yourself (see steps 4- 8).
- Head -to-toe scan. Observe your posture, or where you might be holding tension. Are your shoulders tense and hunched up to your ears? Are you clenching your jaw? Is there tension in your abdomen?
- Observe your breath. Is it shallow? Is it rapid?
- Take 2 deep, diaphragmatic, belly breaths. If you don’t know how to take a diaphragmatic breath, check out this you tube video for instruction. As you breath, visualize the intake of breath flowing to areas of tension. Visualize the exhale as a release of that tension, or of negative thoughts.
- Continue on with your day…
- Repeat steps 1-8 EVERY time you see a sticker. It literally takes 5-10 seconds.
By doing this you are likely to take more than 100 deep breaths per day, training your nervous system to experience more of the parasympathetic response. Over time, you may notice less tension, more energy, less headaches… By building awareness of your breath, you build awareness of where you hold your stress. As you train your nervous system to breathe through stress you may find that you are able to tune in to more subtle cues of tension in the body. The sooner you can breathe through your stress, the less likely the symptoms of stress are going to progress in to loud, painful, chronic symptoms. Breathing is a healthy foundation.
Pause. Breath. Smile. See where it takes you.
In health and happiness,