Regulate my what? You might not even know that you have a Vagus Nerve. However, when you have stress or chronic pain your sympathetic nervous system activates (unfortunately, NOT like the Wonder Twins!) and causes all sorts of changes in the body. Changes like dilating your pupils, raising the hair on your arms, making your breath more shallow, making you sweat and moving the blood from your stomach to your extremities. All these responses are to support you in fighting or fleeing. Now we even know that your systems might choose to slow down or “stop” to activate the freeze or flop response.
Let’s go back to breathing. Shallow breathing should be a short-term response of the body to a perceived threat. Unfortunately, due to what is called chronic stress (overworked, not enough time etc.) many of us are regularly in a fight or flight response. Sometimes we don’t even know how much better we could feel because we have become so used to how we currently feel. We have created a new normal for ourselves.
You might regularly feel depleted, low on energy, exhausted and burned out. In this case, you might be what we call a “chest” or shallow breather. Take a moment now, don’t change anything – where do you notice your breath? Does it drop all the way behind your navel? Do you often find yourself taking an exaggerated breath into the body? Your body might be living on less oxygen to conserve energy for what it perceives is survival.
Conscious breathing and your vagus nerve can help you reclaim your sense of well-being. One of the benefits of yoga is its emphasis on breathwork or pranayama, as well as the development of self-knowledge. The more aware you become of your nervous system and your response to stress or even trauma, the more you realize you could be feeling better and better and move toward healing.
Dr. Stephen Porges coined the term neuroception to describe the process by which the vagus nerve communicates internal and external cues about whether we are safe. We can cultivate an ability to tune into our body signs – tightening your jaw, gripping your hands, clenching the buttocks by watching, witnessing and conscious breathing.
In yoga, prana is called our life force or our energy. When we are depleted emotionally, physically or mentally, we need to restore our energy in our lungs. When we breathe well, we think more clearly and can communicate better.
Dr. Porges developed The Polyvagal Theory which states that part of our vagus nerve can be considered our social engagement system. This part of the system allows a connection between our body and our mind to have self-love as well as compassion for others.
Breathing plays a key role in these feelings as the vagus nerve extends into our heart and lungs. Stress creates a shallow breath and activates the sympathetic nervous system. Long, slow breathing (especially a long, slow exhalation) activates the vagus nerve response which sends a message to your medulla oblongata to stop shallow breathing. This allows an increase of carbon dioxide into the bloodstream and allows for a better sense of safety in the body.
There are many different ways of breathing and finding a long exhalation. The key is to find the one that works for you right now. You might find a full, deep belly breath is best. Or a shorter inhalation and longer exhalation works best. You might use the Buteyko method that emphasizes a barely perceptible inhalation and exhalation and holding the breath out. Or, maybe the Wim Hoff breath of a forceful inhale and exhale and then holding the breath out is the ticket for you.
The key is to find a way to control your breath. In yoga we call breath control Pranayama. However, “Ayama” also means liberation or freedom, so practicing breathing can help us find freedom.
First, you need to discover how your body responds. What are your body cues and signals. Then try on a few different breathing techniques and see what works for you knowing that you might need to practice more than one technique.
Here are two of my favorite techniques both creating a long exhalation.
Take a few minutes of full yogic breathing (lower belly, chest, collarbones). Then begin to count to four on your inhalation and 6 on your exhalation. Continue to extend the exhale to the extent that you can.
Kaki (Beak) Breath
Inhale through your nose. Purse your lips (like you are going to whistle or blow out a candle) and slowly release the air from your lips.
Try either practice for 1-2 minutes working up to 5-10 minutes a day.