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The Nervous System and Breath

The Nervous System – the clue’s in the name: a few times every second your body asks an essential question – “Do I need to worry about anything?”

This could apply to meeting a stranger, brushing past a spider’s web, spilling your cup of tea or something a little bigger like Covid-19 and what it could mean to our world.

If the answer is ‘yes,’ our autonomic nervous system takes charge. The body mobilises, speeding the heart and lungs, releasing survival hormones and starts to shut down non-essential functions like our gut and immune system. Once the threat goes away the system relaxes, allowing us to smile, socialize and thrive.

But what if we get stuck there?

Our body and mind become overwhelmed by stress hormones and we withdraw into a primal reaction of disconnection. The tools of social interaction – face and eyes, voice and ears, empathy and playfulness have all been put away. Basic functions only remain with the hope of scraping through by a lucky chance… Without the pillars of support that come from an engaged and inventive community, we become more vulnerable to immune system threats like the virus. Let’s not get stuck there..!

So what can I do?

One of our biggest feedback mechanisms to the nervous system is breath. Unlike many of the others, it can be consciously controlled. Try this: 3 sharp breaths focusing on the inhale, the system is excited and accelerates. 3 long slow breaths into the belly with long outbreaths, the system decelerates and calms. We have given our nervous system a cue of safety, applying the ‘vagal brake’ on our heart and lungs. Our control of breath, its potential to decelerate the heart, can be directly linked to ‘Heart Rate Variability’ which is beginning to be seen as a major indicator of health and life expectancy. Slow diaphragmatic breathing has been getting more and more support from research, as one of our principal ways of self-regulating the system and improving our health.

Many techniques are out there. First just take time to observe it, inhales and exhales, their depth, where they come from. What happens when you are lying down relaxed, compare this to when you’re stressed…

A great way to start with conscious breath work is trying to get 10 good belly breaths before bed and first thing in the morning while you’re lying down. Deep in the belly, not the chest. Using the nose is best, but not essential. Don’t force it, keep it easy. Focus on long noisy outbreaths. The rest of the day, just try and do 3 when you have a spare moment. As your interest builds, try longer times, different methods: try a nice big luxurious yawn! 4 seconds inhale, 6 seconds exhale; try 5 minutes of this... Combine breathwork with picturing a place or person you find relaxing or even better inspiring, their qualities, their essence. Use music, sing, try sense of smell – shower gels, essential oils, combine it with movement, cold water, do it with others: get playful and inventive!

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