May is Mental Health Awareness month, which is very timely considering the added stress, anxiety and uncertainty caused by COVID-19. Generally speaking, stress isn’t all bad. It drives us to perform well in certain situations such as meeting deadlines and delivering public speeches. The challenge with stress is when it becomes chronic. Constant stress and anxiety can cause increased levels of certain hormones, such as cortisol, which can cause systems of our body to react in ways that negatively affect our health.
A certain amount of stress is inevitable, so it is important to find ways to successfully manage stress levels to reduce those negative health consequences. In recent years, people have been turning to meditation, yoga, tai chi and qi gong to help manage the effects of stress and improve their overall health. Once considered solely Eastern religious practices, these activities are becoming increasingly popular among the general public and with researchers due to proven benefits to physical and mental health as well as brain function.
Thanks to a growing body of research, we have a better understanding of how these practices help people manage stress levels and improve health. According to a 2018 article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the beneficial effects of these activities are well established and share a common foundation. A large-scale review of research studies named in the article states that these types of activities “reduce multiple physiological stress markers” including “heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels and inflammatory bodies” (Pascoe et al., 2017). The underlying mechanism associated with these health improvements is tied to the function of a specific nerve, called the Vagus Nerve, and its relationship to breathing.
Contemplative activities like meditation, yoga, tai chi and qi gong all involve paying attention to and modifying breath patterns. Specific breathing techniques shared by these practices include: 1) slowing down breath cycles, reducing the number of breaths per minute, 2) emphasis on slowing exhalations compared to inhalations and 3) shifting from “chest breathing” to “belly breathing,” often referred to as diaphragmatic breathing.
Practical cues for this type of breathing include:
Relaxing muscles around the face, neck, shoulders, arms, and ribs
Inhaling and exhaling through the nose with the mouth closed
Allowing the lungs to fully expand with each inhale and fully “deflate” with each exhale
Allowing the rib cage to expand and diaphragm to lower with each inhale and then reversing that process with each exhale
Research has consistently supported the benefits of these breathing practices in that they lower heart rate, blood pressure and blood lipid profiles; all factors tied to chronic disease risk (Ospina et al. 2007). More current research involving the vagus nerve is helping to explain why breathing in this way causes these changes.
The vagus nerve is a unique part of the nervous system. It has two branches that run from the brainstem throughout the whole body, connecting directly with all organs and systems of the body, including the heart, lungs and digestive system. Simply stated, one branch of the vagus nerve is involved in the flight/flight reaction (sympathetic nervous system) and the other branch involves the rest/digest system (parasympathetic nervous system). Just as the name implies, the parasympathetic system puts the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system, helping the body shift from a fight or flight stress response to a more relaxed state. Slow, relaxed breathing activates the parasympathetic rest and digest system, sending signals of safety and security to the organs of the body, causing physiological changes that support optimal heart, lung and digestive functions.
In a nutshell, breathing activities such as those mentioned here, help reorient the body’s nervous system response. Over time and with consistent practice, we are better able to recognize unhealthy reactions to stress and use breathing techniques to balance the systems of our bodies in ways that improve our health and lower our risk for disease.
In addition to classes offered through the YMCA, NCRD and other local partners, there are many free on-line resources for developing these breathing techniques. Michelle Jenck, who holds a Master of Education in Health and Kinesiology, has created a short video demonstration (https://youtu.be/2Ft1vFiMsV8) of a simple breathing activity. During this time of uncertainty and added stress, consider adding a five-minute breathing practice to your daily routine to help regulate and improve your body’s stress response.
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