Breathing is an essential function of life. Like the workings of your heart and other internal organs, your breathing is an automatic response- governed by the autonomic nervous system, which works without conscious effort. But the breath is unique in the way that a person can consciously alter the rate and depth of their breath, therefore tapping into and taking control of their nervous system.
There are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous systems (PNS). The SNS acts to prepare the body for a fight-or-flight, stress response. These days that could be anything from being overworked to driving on a busy highway. The SNS acts to slow body processes, like digestion or tissue regeneration, in times of perceived “emergencies”. On the other hand, the PNS triggers a rest-and-digest response, acting to slow heart rate, encourage digestion, strengthen immunity and promote tissue growth. This parasympathetic state of being is essential in the management of stress, anxiety, and healing from an injury or trauma.
So how does our breath allow us to control what nervous system we predominately function in? The crucial link is the vagus nerve, which stems from the brain and travels down your throat to innervate the lungs, heart and digestive system. This nerve is the key activator of the PNS. By lengthening and deepening your breath, you are essentially tickling the vagus nerve as it passes through the diaphragm, sending a signal to turn on the PNS and promote a more restorative state.
Many of us in our busy lives tend to function more often in a sympathetic state, which in turn takes a toll on the health of our organs and tissues. So, what if we tried to take our health into consideration, and allow that parasympathetic system to take over more often? What if several times a day we paused, noticed our breath, and slowly inhaled; filling our bellies and then letting our ribs rise as we allow the breath to fill our chest. Then, let the breath drift slowly out. After several of these deep diaphragmatic breaths, return to your normal resting breath, and perhaps you may feel just a little more settled, clear-minded and parasympathetic.
As a massage therapist, I see how instructing and reminding clients of the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing gives them a tool to empower their own health. This breathing exercise supports and amplifies the benefits of massage. It helps the client relax, ease muscle tension and pain perception, delivers oxygen-rich blood to tissues in need of repair, and helps the parasympathetic system do its restorative magic!
Written by Thalia Shulist, RMT.