When anxious or stressed, our nervous system is involved. The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight-or-flight responses and short-term survival, while the parasympathetic nervous system is at work for rest/digest states and is necessary for long-term survival.
Chronic stress, anxiety, and panic can keep the body’s sympathetic nervous system in a near-constant and over-active state. If our nervous system is constantly in an overactive state it can become quite normal to live inside our heads, disassociate, or feel extremely uncomfortable in the body.
Another area that regulates our body’s stress response is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve begins at the base of the skull and travels down the body (known as the “wandering nerve”), with four branches in the throat/neck/chest (ventral) and in the gut (dorsal). It is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.
Breathing exercises can help activate the parasympathetic, which controls our rest state, and deactivate the sympathetic nervous system which regulates our fight-or-flight response, with stimulation of the vagus nerve.
3 Part Breathe
Sit in a comfortable position, eyes open or closed, and spine erect.
You can use your hands as a guide or try the 3 part breathe without. Breathe into the belly, feeling it grow. Keep inhaling as the breath expands to the ribs, and then to the chest. Pause for a moment, completely filled with air.
Exhale from the chest, then the ribs, and then the belly. Pause again for a moment, completely empty of air.
Continue by repeating the same sequence, inhaling to the belly, the ribs, the chest, and exhaling from the chest, the ribs, and the belly. Try for a few rounds. Work towards more repetitions if you feel comfortable.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed if you’re comfortable, and spine erect.
Place your left hand on your left knee. Next, lift your right hand up toward your nose. Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
Open the right nostril and exhale through this side. Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril. Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
This is one cycle. Continue by repeating the alternate nostril breathing for up to 5 minutes. Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.
Sit or lay in a comfortable position.
Focus on your natural breathing rhythm. Count the length of each inhale and exhale to obtain a baseline.
Place one hand on your stomach. Breath in for four seconds and then out for four seconds. Do this for one minute.
Repeat, but extend your inhales and exhales to five seconds. Do this for one minute.
Repeat again, extending further to six seconds. Do this for one minute.
If you feel like you can’t stop your mind from wandering, that’s okay! As soon as you notice, start counting again beginning at one.