breathing on purpose: a cooling out breath
we learn that focusing on a long out-breath can help us feel more relaxed and calm
The body’s response to stress is complex, but as a general rule the baseline, balanced state of the autonomic nervous system is mostly resting and digesting, with a mild activation of the fight-or-flight response for alertness and vitality. This may surprise those for whom a stressful life, and the adrenaline rush of a fight-or-flight response that comes with it, is their norm. Autonomic system functions are almost entirely independent of the conscious mind, but one aspect that we have some control over is their breathing.
When we exhale, our brains send a signal down the vagus nerve—a long, complex cranial nerve that runs from the brain through the head, continues through the midsection, and ends in the belly—to slow our heartbeats. When we inhale, that signal gets weaker, and our heartbeats quicken. Scientists have referred to the vagus nerve as the single most important nerve the body because of its role in supporting emotional-regulation, self-soothing, and social-engagement functions.
Long before scientists understood the connection, meditators and yogis used their breathing to tap into their autonomic nervous systems by lightly focusing their attention on the in-breath for energy and alertness (arousing a fight, flight, or freeze response) or on the out-breath for relaxation and calm (stimulating a rest and digest response). Even children notice this connection and many find this game, which emphasizes the out-breath, to be calming.
Leading the Game
- Breathe naturally and notice the length of your inhale and exhale.
- Now, vary the pace of your breathing deliberately. Breathe in for two counts, and breathe out for four counts.
- Remember to keep your body relaxed, and your mind on your breathing.
- Repeat for as long as your comfortable doing so, then return to breathing naturally.
- How do you feel?