In recent months, my clients have been telling me things like, “I don’t think I’m an anxious person, but since COVID-19, my nerves are on edge, I’m having trouble sleeping, and I feel depressed." I tell them what I'm about to tell you: yoga has a technique that can help. It's breathing.
Now more than ever, we are challenged to find resiliency in an ever-changing situation. For many, these uncertain times cause us to feel anxious, tense and ungrounded. Breathing, as simple and cost-effective as it is, is one thing we can control, and a very beneficial way to strengthen our nervous system and reduce anxiety. Combined with ongoing conventional treatment, breathing practices can help people suffering from stress, anxiety, and other physical problems.
Various studies have demonstrated the benefits of breathing practices used as a complementary therapy. In 2015, researchers reviewed over 100 studies and found emotions and respiration (breathing) is closely linked. (Jerath, Crawford, & Barnes, 2015). Other studies have demonstrated that breathing can play an important role in promoting a healthy lifestyle by improving immunity, antioxidant status, hormonal status, and brain function.
How can something so simple work? In a nutshell, slow, deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, increases the activity of the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system located at the base of the brain. According to Psychology Today, “the vagus nerve is why your heart races and stomach curdles when you sense a threat ... and why your breathing slows and your body relaxes when friends welcome you to their house. The vagus nerve is the key player in the autonomic nervous system.”
When the nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body, causing the heart rate to slow and regulate, blood pressure to decrease, and muscles to relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes, reducing the mental chatter that makes you restless, and increasing feelings of peacefulness. Thus, the technique is thought to work through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms.
Follow your breath
You may be wondering how to get started. Posture is important. Begin by sitting or lying comfortably on your back with your hands resting on your abdomen. First, inhaling in through the nostrils, allow the breath to consciously expand the belly as if you are inflating a balloon. Then, let the breath continue rising up through the rib cage, filling both up and out to the sides, so that you feel the top of the lungs (underneath the collarbones) inflate. This is one full inhalation, and half of the practice.
The full exhalation begins there at the top of the lungs. As air is released from the apex of the lungs, the collarbones lower. The air continues to flow out, down through the rib cage. Ideally, the exhalation lasts twice as long as the inhalation. Imagine that you are pouring out a glass of water. As the exhalation continues (ribs contracting from the top down) you can help by drawing the abdominal muscles in, and nudging the breath out till the end. Pulling in the abdominal muscles is like contracting a bellows and helps exhale more residual air, which in turn, increases available lung capacity for the next inhalation. Let the exhale extend long and slow.
The most important thing to remember is to keep the trunk of the body relaxed. Do not let the muscles in the rib cage tense or tighten as they move. Let them expand and contract with the breath in a non-forced way. Pay attention to how each part of the body feels during the practice. If the body starts to tense or tighten anywhere, this is a signal that you are trying too hard. When you feel your thoughts drift (which is natural), redirect your attention back to your breath.
Try this two-to-three-minute practice daily for a week, at just about any time of day, though preferably not immediately following a large meal. Observe how it benefits you physically and mentally. If it feels easeful and relaxing, then begin extending the length of time of your practice session.
If you’re overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, our primary care providers can help you find solutions. Schedule an appointment online or a video visit today.