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Breathing - The Forgotten Pillar of Health - Part 2 Nervous System Regulation

Our nervous system is a highly complex part of our body that coordinates its actions and sensory information by transmitting signals to and from different parts of the body.

The simplest way to explain this complex system is if you think about our nervous system like a triangle. A triangle has 3 sides; an up side, a down side, and the bottom.

The upside of the triangle can be seen as your gas pedal - your fight or flight nervous system. This is called the sympathetic nervous system state. This is the part of our nervous system that reacts to danger. In the past you might have been out foraging for food and suddenly there is danger, a sabertoothed tiger is stalking you! In today's world maybe you're walking through an alley and you hear a big bang and you feel that fear come up. That is your fight or flight or freeze mechanism. It's your body preparing you for action. Your heart rate increases along with your breathing, blood flow is heading to the brain and to your muscles so that you can get ready to run! You are becoming focused and vigilant.

The other side of the triangle, the down side, is called the parasympathetic nervous system This is the rest and the digest state. And it’s in this state where we’re balanced, we’re finding meaning, we’re feeling emotions. Things that put us in this state would be eye gazing with your partner, giving a hug to your mom, laughing, having dinner with friends. This is when our body is saying, "Hey, I’m safe". Blood flow is moving from your brain to your organs for digestion, reproduction, you’re feeling oxytocin, joy and other emotions. Your breath is slow, long and calm.

Throughout history, those nervous system states have been quite balanced and we are able to move easily from one to the other when we needed to. However, in the last 10 years, things have really changed with the carrying of cell phones, and this societal belief that to be successful we always must be productive and "doing" something. As a whole we are seeing massive amounts of burnout, and overwhelm. Our brain doesn't know the difference between perceived stress and actual stress/danger. The constant ding of a text message, an angry email from your boss, a zoom meeting you're running late for, and the never ending scroll of social media, are all things that our brain equates to real stress and as a result, the fight or flight state is triggered. Many people spend 90% of their day in this fight or flight state! It's no wonder most of the clients I see have some sort of digestive issue. When we are constantly in a fight or flight state our digestive system is essentially turned off since you do not need to digest food when you are running for your life.

People are always saying "I’m busy", oh so busy, and overwhelmed in a world of never ending stimulus. When was the last time you were actually bored in the last 10 years? I'm guessing the answer is never. You’re sitting at a restaurant waiting for your food, your phone comes out, you check social media, or you’re catching an elevator, and out comes the phone to check emails. I am guilty of this too. We have created a world where we do not know how to pause and "be" with ourselves, or with the people surrounding us.

We've covered two angles of the triangle, right? The up, pushing the gas pedal and the down, pressing the break. The third part of the triangle is that everyone’s nervous system state is different and how our nervous system state regulates the level of stress we can deal with is different. What really triggers that fight or flight response is based on something else. Our vagal tone, the ability for us to move into the parasympathetic state is based on the flexibility of our Vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is connected from our brain to many of our organs including the heart, lungs and digestive system. This nerve controls our autonomic nervous system such as heart rate and breathing. The functions that happen automatically without us having to think about it. Now, someone who has lived in a war torn country, or experienced significant trauma in their life is much more likely to enter into that fight or flight state whereas someone else who hasn't experienced those may not have those same fears. Nervous system regulation also means processing emptions and traumas, whether its through psychedelic medicines, breathwork, nature retreats or other modalities to really tap into the nervous system and allow the body to transmute those emotions.

That is a quick explanation of our complicated nervous system. Our breath can play a large roll in how we are able to regulate our emotions and stress. When we inhale our heart rate increases and it slows down when we exhale. Imagine how much more relaxed we would all feel if we took the time to slow our breath down more often. If we focused on deep belly breaths with longer exhales.

Here is a great breathing practice to help you tap into your parasympathetic nervous system, it's called Bhramari Pranayama (Humming Bee Breath). This practice benefits the mind and body. This calming practice and sooths the nervous system and relaxes the mind. Close your eyes, and use your index finger or thumb to gently close your ears. As you exhale constrict your throat to create a hmmmmmmmm sound with your mouth closed. This sounds creates vibration in the vocal cords, which in turn, tones the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system. Try this for 5-10 breaths and see how you feel. Let me know in the comments below!


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