The Biology of Calm
"Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor."~Thích Nhất Hạnh
We have the ability to regulate our nervous system in a variety of ways, inducing a state of calm and relaxation. This article is the first in a series which will investigate specific techniques to use towards inducing calm, particularly through vagal nerve activation. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in one’s body. Its name means “wanderer” – as it originates in the brain stem and wanders to the ears, tongue, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, heart, lungs, pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, kidneys, intestines and stomach.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which plays a role in “rest and digest” behaviors and initiates an overall calm state and immobilization. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system is involved in “fight or flight” behaviors and initiates a state of fear and anxiety and mobilization. When a person is hiking in the woods and spots a black bear the sympathetic nervous system is activated, initiating a cascade of events that involves one’s breath becoming shallow, pupils dilating, heart rate increasing, palms becoming sweaty, digestion slowing down and running.
While most of us are not hiking in woods and stumbling upon bears, we encounter several real and perceived threats in our everyday life – your toddler standing on a wobbly chair, your partner’s frowning brow when you walk in the door, the tone of someone’s voice, an image that reminds you of something painful from your past. All of these cues can trigger your body into “fight or flight” mode as if you are standing in front of a bear.
The number of times one experiences fight or flight mode per day can interfere with his or her overall level of functioning, manifesting in a variety of mental illnesses such as generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder to name a few. The good news is that there is a myriad of ways in which one can activate the vagus nerve, changing the body’s physiology and tipping the scales back to a state of calm and rest and digest. As a matter of fact, through initiating diaphragmatic breathing, we have 20,000 to 30,000 opportunities a day to initiate a state of calm, which is the number of breaths humans take in one day.
There are several resources on-line or your therapist can teach you diaphragmatic breathing. To do so, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. When you inhale, the hand on your stomach should extend out and the hand on your chest should remain relatively static. Continue to breathe in this pattern for a few rounds or if you are able, try to work towards 5-7 cycles (inhale and exhale) of breath per minute to initiate paced breathing. Stop if you become light headed. Both methods of breathing, either diaphragmatic or paced are generally not natural. Like any new skill, practice makes perfect.
The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation. Stephen W. Porgers. W. W. Norton & Company 2011.
Breatheology: The Art of Conscious Breathing. Stig Avall Severinsen. Idelson-Gnocchi Ltd. 2010.
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