How many times have you been told to breathe when you’re feeling anxious or afraid or stressed out?  I can’t count the times that I’ve been told by a yoga teacher, my doctor, a chiropractor and others to practice deep breathing when I’m stressed.  When I do, it seems to work.  And, it got me to wondering why it works so well.  What do all these people know about breathing that I don’t know?  So I looked it up …


Vegas or Vagus

If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas you may agree with me that the bright and flashing lights, the loud din of people’s voices on the casino floors and the sound of winner-winner bells going off is anything but relaxing.  It sometimes even stresses me.  So how could something that sounds just like it be a stress-reliever?

Have you ever heard of the Vagus Nerve? 


The science behind stress relief

The vagus nerve originates in the brain stem and extends to the tongue, vocal chords, heart, lungs and other internal organs.  It’s the most important element of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that calms us down.  Doctors and other experts have suggested that stimulating our Vagus Nerve is a quick and easy way to relieve stress and anxiety. (Newmax Health, 2015) 

Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine explains, “It’s almost like yin and yang.  The vagal response reduces stress.  It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure.  It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.”  It’s starting to make sense.

Apparently, when we stimulate the Vagus Nerve it releases a lot of anti-stress enzymes and hormones into our body.  These enzymes and hormones are known to provide us great benefits, like improved memory, immune function and sleep.  All good things, right?

So, how do we make that Vagus Nerve work in our favor to reduce stress?


Breathe and feel the stress melt away

Deep breathing is the key.  Dr Golubic adds, “We have a certain space where we can control breathing.  We can extend the inhalation and the exhalation.  So by those practices we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.”

When we breathe from the diaphragm, sometimes called belly breathing, we expand the abdomen instead of the chest. Start by taking a deep breath in through your nose, expanding your abdomen, while counting to five.  Then, very slowly exhale through slightly pursed lips.  To get the vagus nerve stimulated, reduce the number of breaths you take per minute.  Most people take 10-14 breaths per minute.  We want to slow ours to between 5 and 7 breaths per minute.


The studies show …

A deep breathing practice like this one, done for 10 minutes at a time is enough to notice that we’re calming down and feeling more relaxed.  The key is to repeat this practice on a daily basis to manage stress.


What are the long-term benefits?

Slowing our breathing helps us to relax … when we’re relaxed we think more clearly … when we think more clearly our decisions come easier and dreams feel more possible.   Our dreams motivate us … they spur us to move forward. 

Let’s make a deal with each other … let’s start a practice of deep, belly-breathing today and let’s do it every day.  Let’s stimulate our vagus nerve and kick that parasympathetic nervous system into gear.  Pick a time of day to start … I’m going to start in the morning before I get ready for work.  Then, let’s remember to use this same technique during the day whenever the stress starts to sneak in.  I’m kicking stress to the curb … how about you?

From my “parasympathetic” heart to yours …

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