Why Breathing Calms You Down

by Melissa West on

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Breathing


In this video I am going to explain how we can sometimes unintentionally use our sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight) to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest) and ultimately why breathing calms us down.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an old Ted Talk by Max Strom called Breathe to Heal. I will put a card to it up here so you can watch it too, it is a pretty awesome talk. In this talk, what stood out most to me was his discussion about anxiety. What he was essentially saying is that when we repress emotions, and he was specifically talking about emotions, it shows up as anxiety. This was a major aha moment for me. That anxiety, is a way that we hold our emotional life at bay. When we breathe we can feel. It is just that we are terrified of our feelings.

My name is Melissa. I teach breathing and yoga, mostly restorative styles of yoga like yin yoga, sleep yoga and restorative yoga on my main channel. I am super lucky that the foundations of my yoga study included a lot of teaching on breathing.

This month I am answering your questions about breathing here and on my main channel I have a short, simple 10 min breathing exercise once a week. I would love to have you as a subscriber here and on my main channel as well.

Why does breathing calm us down? Well let’s start with what happens when it doesn’t.

When we are stressed and anxious we try to take in a deeper breath. My friend, Laura G Yoga has a podcast called Yoga Focus on Removing Restrictions to Find Essential Breath. This actually tends to be a willful upward pulling of energy that creates tension in the neck and shoulders, even though we are trying to draw in more breath to relax. It is a kind of compensatory pattern that ends up forcing and manipulating the breath into the top of the chest, rather than a downward pull of breath into the belly.

This kind of breathing actually reduces the carbon dioxide in the blood, including the carotid artery going to the brain, which further reduces the flow of blood through the body. No matter how much oxygen we breathe into our lungs, our body will experience a shortage of oxygen. This lack of oxygen switches on the fight or flight reflex making us tense, anxious and irritable. It reduces our ability to think clearly and it turns us towards obsessive thinking.

It is possible to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to calm down, through our breath as well. We can do this by accessing certain cranial nerves, such as the vagus nerve that comes from the brain stem and also the ones that reside in our lower back region of our spine.

The parasympathetic nerve ganglia do not run down the spine, but are actually located near the organs they influence.

When we focus on that downward pull of breath with the diaphragm or lower belly breathing, it massages all the lower internal organs and lower back and stimulates the ganglia nerve in this area.

So that downward pull of breath, with a relaxed lower belly, that opens to your breath in a natural way, creates impulses that come from those ganglia. They reduce heart rate, dilate blood vessels, increase digestive peristalsis (which means the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine, creating wave-like movements that push the contents of the canal forward), constrict air passages in the lungs and help the body to slow down and restore itself.

Thank you for your calm breath.

Namaste, Melissa

Videos Referenced: 

Ted Talk: Max Strom Breathe to Heal 

Laura G: Essential Breath

 

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