How do we understand the connection between controlling our breath and the powerful effects that it produces? A good place to start is with the autonomic nervous system, which regulates all the automatic functions of the body. It is also the main regulator in our stress-response system. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two counterbalancing parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic system goes into action when we are under stress or enduring a challenge, or have to mobilize to get something we want or to avoid something harmful.
When the challenge or danger has passed, what is supposed to happen is that the sympathetic system quiets down, while its counterpart, the parasympathetic system, comes online and begins to counteract all the effects of the “fight-or-flight” response. For example, the sympathetic system speeds up our heart rate and respiration, and the parasympathetic slows them both down and triggers our natural “rest and digest, restore and repair” functions. The parasympathetic system restores energy reserves and reduces inflammation. But what happens all too often is that our sympathetic system stays highly active instead of returning to baseline, while our parasympathetic system is underactive, especially in people who suffer chronic stress or trauma. That’s when we see people experience inappropriate overreactions and difficulty relaxing or calming down; they feel unsafe and stuck in a defensive mode. So, how can breathing help correct this imbalance? Dr. Richard P. Brown, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, has been using a wide variety of breathing practices for the past fifty years, first in martial arts, Zen meditation, and aikido (fourth dan), then as a teacher of yoga, qigong, and meditation. Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College, became interested in the neuropsychology of breathing practices over fifteen years ago. She and Dr. Brown have been exploring how specific breathing practices can reduce the activity of the SNS and boost the activity of the PNS.
- One key to the puzzle comes from the work of the neuroanatomist Dr. Stephen Porges, distinguished university scientist at the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University Bloomington. Dr. Porges formulated the Polyvagal Theory based on his discovery of three evolutionary stages in our autonomic system that help us deal with the demands of life.
- Most of the pathways of the PNS travel through two large nerves: the vagus nerves that exit from the brain stem, one on each side, and continue down throughout the body, sending branches to all internal organs. About 20 percent of these pathways send messages from the brain down to the body (efferent) to regulate the organs. About 80 percent of the pathways bring information from the body up to the brain (afferent)—millions of bits of information every millisecond, telling the brain what is going on inside the body. Our perception of this sensory information from inside the body is called interoception. Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg applied Dr. Porges’s discoveries to understanding how breath practices work. They explain that the respiratory system has millions of receptors: chemical receptors, pressure receptors, and stretch receptors. With every breath in and out, microscopic stretch receptors fire in the walls of millions of alveoli (the air-filled sacs inside the lungs). Studies have shown that when we change our pattern of breathing, we change the interoceptive messages going from the respiratory system to the brain. Where is all this information going, and what does it do inside the brain? Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg have gathered a good deal of evidence through electronic vagal nerve stimulation, brain-imaging studies, and clinical trials to support their theory that this information reaches the brain centers that process and regulate our emotions, perceptions, judgments, thoughts, and behaviors. They agree with Dr. Porges and Dr. Sue Carter, director of the Kinsey Institute and Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana University Bloomington, whose recent work indicates that the activity of the vagal PNS system has significant effects on our abilities to trust, love, connect, bond, be intimate, communicate emotionally, and feel empathy. According to Dr. Gerbarg, “Because breathing has such a strong impact on our thoughts and feelings, it provides a portal through which we can send messages through our own nervous systems to quiet our minds, reduce defensive overreactivity, and enable us to feel safe, close loving, and loved.”
- Based on their studies of people with severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including survivors of mass disasters, Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg teach a form of Conscious Breathing called “coherent breathing”: breathing gently and naturally through the nose at a rate of four and a half to six breaths per minute, using a chime tone to pace the breathing. To this they add other techniques to strengthen and balance the SNS and PNS.
- As a team, Dr. Brown, Dr. Gerbarg, and their colleagues formulate and test theories about how breathing may be used to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD as well as stress-related medical problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease. When we speed up or slow down our breathing, we activate the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. (Any kind of breathing, not just “diaphragmatic breathing” affects the vagal nerves.) By controlling our breath, we can willfully influence the brain and the autonomic nervous system and literally change our mind-body state. By changing the pattern of our breathing, we change the pattern of the information being sent to the brain. In other words, how often, how fast, and how much you inflate your lungs directly affects the brain and how it operates. Breathing affects every organ, system, and function in the body. Every physiological, psychological, and emotional state has a corresponding breathing pattern. When you change one, the other changes. Therefore, Conscious Breathing techniques have the potential to transform the quality of your life on every level and on a day-to-day basis. When we are focused on a challenging task, when we have too much on our minds, when we are worried about the kids, school, money, or aging parents, we are functioning in the sympathetic zone. Our bodies are producing more free radicals, and we are not able to relax or to feel close and cuddly. We also tend to make snap judgments and be more reactive, and we are less flexible, relaxed, and creative. Conscious Breathing can balance and counteract all that. Breathwork can become a powerful and natural alternative or adjunct in dealing with post-traumatic stress, anxiety disorders, and many other conditions.