If we want to know how breathing can help to reduce stress we need to know more about the nervous system and the functions. In this article we will try to explain briefly the structures and functions of the nervous system and how breathing can help to reduce lower stress responses associated with “fight-or-flight” mechanisms
The nervous system is a complex collection of nerves and specialized cells known as neurons that transmit signals between different parts of the body. You can look at it as the electrical wiring of our body.
Structures of the nervous system
the nervous system has two components: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves. The peripheral nervous system consists of sensory neurons, ganglia (clusters of neurons) and nerves that connect to one another and to the central nervous system.
Functions of the nervous system
The nervous system has two main subdivisions: the somatic, or voluntary, component; and the autonomic, or involuntary, component.
The somatic nervous system (SoNS) consists of nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord with muscles and sensory receptors in the skin. (F.e. A dancer on stage is integrating her memory of the music and choreography in the CNS to direct the movement of her skeletal muscles through the SoNS. From the still readiness of her body before the music begins till the last bow and smile, the neurons of the SoNS signal every large and small striated muscle group in the body based on the directions of the central nerve system)
The autonomic nervous system regulates certain body processes, such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing, that work without conscious effort. It consists of sympathetic division and of the parasympathetic division..
Many organs are controlled primarily by either the sympathetic or the parasympathetic division. Sometimes the two divisions have opposite effects on the same organ. For example, the sympathetic division increases blood pressure, and the parasympathetic division decreases it. Overall, the two divisions work together to ensure that the body responds appropriately to different situations.
To understand more about how breathing can help to reduce lower stress systems we need to understand the working of the autonomic nervous system. This system consists of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic dividison
The sympathetic system
Generally, the sympathetic system does the following:
Prepares the body for stressful or emergency situations—fight or flight
The sympathetic division increases heart rate and the force of heart contractions and widens (dilates) the airways to make breathing easier and faster. It causes the body to release stored energy. Muscular strength is increased. This division also causes palms to sweat, pupils to dilate, and hair to stand on end. It slows body processes that are less important in emergencies, such as digestion and urination.
The parasympathetic system
The parasympathetic division conserves and restores. It slows the heart rate and decreases blood pressure. Often the rate of breathing lowers. It stimulates the digestive tract to process food and eliminate wastes. Energy from the processed food is used to restore and build tissues.
How can Breathing help to reduce stress symptoms related to fight- flight mechanisms ?
Slow abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is something you can do anytime and anywhere to instantly stimulate your vagus nerve (this is the tenth cranial nerve or CN X, and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract) and lower stress responses associated with “fight-or-flight” mechanisms. Deep breathing also improves heart rate variability (HRV), which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals.
When it comes to effective vagal maneuvers, any type of deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing—during which you visualize filling up the lower part of your lungs just above your belly button like a balloon…and then exhaling slowly—is going to stimulate your vagus nerve, activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and improve your HRV.
Some people make time every day to practice diaphragmatic breathing as part of a yoga or mindfulness-meditation routine. Others only take a really deep breath anytime they catch themselves feeling “panicky,” need to have grace under pressure, or want to relieve some frustration. All of these applications of diaphragmatic breathing can have huge benefits to reduce stress.