Health & Wellness Committee: Mindful Breathing Can Reset A Rattled Nervous System

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily the Health & Wellness Committee, and are not a substitute for talking to your doctor.

Do you suffer from anxiety, depression, chronic pain or fatigue? Well lucky for you, there’s a pill for that!

Just kidding. Fortunately, in many of these cases there’s much simpler, safer and viable solution, and it all lies in the way you breathe.

The Mechanics of Breathing

Although we do it every day without much thought, the act of breathing is a complex process involving many different moving parts. Your lungs essentially function like an accordion. The contraction and relaxation of your diaphragm creates pressure changes in the torso that cause air to be drawn in and expelled. In order for this to happen efficiently, all of the various muscles and soft tissues that drive this process must be pliable enough to react properly to these pressure changes. Previous injuries, emotional holding patterns and poor postural habits can all throw a monkey wrench into the workings of this process.

When we are chronically stressed, we gradually lose the ability to adapt to various types of stimuli. Our nervous systems become deconditioned. We lose the capacity for self-regulation and often end up stuck in a state of hyperarousal. When this happens, muscles such as the scalenes — which should only lightly assist with breathing — become tight and overworked. This prevents the ribcage from expanding and contracting properly, which can restrict lung capacity by up to 70 percent. The result is a predisposition to hyperventilation, which then results in anxiety and hyperarousal, which only feeds further into the cycle of dysfunction.

The Breathing Hack

One of the easiest ways to “hack” the nervous system and help it reset itself is through mindful breathing. If you’ve taken a meditation or a yoga class, you are already somewhat familiar with this process. Find a quiet place and take five or ten minutes to practice. Without straining, take a calm deep breath in. Let your belly inflate like a balloon first. Then, let the chest expand to the front, back and out to the sides but not up towards the ears. I like to think of this sequence like a wave pattern — first the belly rises, then the chest. Be sure to keep the neck and shoulders relaxed as you do this. Imagine they are floating weightlessly on top of your body.

Inhale for a count of three seconds. Pause for a second, then exhale for count of six seconds. Take another second-long pause before you allow your lungs to reinflate. This process will help downregulate the autonomic nervous system and alleviate excess muscle tone.

Take some time to get to know your body, and don’t be afraid to explore. It will thank you!

Dan Vidal is a licensed massage therapist and a certified Neurosomatic Pain Treatment Specialist. He helps patients eliminate pain by assessing their posture and creating personalized treatment plans that involve targeted massage and mindful movement practices. The Health & Wellness workshop on the Mechanics of the Breath will be held at Sage Integrative Health Center in Mt. Airy on April 30.