Stress. What a timely word for a world that feels like a bad movie right now. Although it's designed to aid in response to threatening situations, chronic stress, the "will COVID-19 ever be over" kind of stress, can quickly leave one craving for a numbing solution or check out. This is called dissociation, and if left unattended, can create a large chasm between the mind and body. Alcohol and drugs, among the highest of coping mechanisms, act as anesthetics that numb pain and dysfunction. These methods facilitate GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that can help mimic the action of anxiety-reducing pharmaceuticals such as Xanax. Raijita Sinha, director of the Yale School of Medicine Stress Center, states that "There's very little data to show that the anti-stress effects of [numbing agents] are sustained". Unfortunately, these 'stress relievers' can rapidly turn into one big snowball effect as the brain's chemistry adapts, leaving one craving for more while accumulating stress in the process. This is all happening as the human grows further distant from the internal self.
I'm certainly not here to point fingers or lecture on addiction - I think we're all trapped in something, and the area is outside of my scope. Nonetheless, I do want to paint the picture of that runaway snowball, as it's an important metaphor to the many who are blindly reaching for solutions to lighten the baggage of 2020.
Now I offer you some good news, a small antidote that each of us have access to. Not in the form of a pill, or even a HIIT workout, but within your very own thoracic cavity. I'm talking about deep, intentional breathing. Before running off now, please know that this isn't some mysterious yoga practice that involves positioning yourself upside down. I'm talking about a simple method that has been backed up by science for years. It won't take all of your burdens away, but it will mark a monumental shift from seeking escape, to truly listening in to what's going on. Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk puts it masterfully when he says, "...our conscious self plays a vital role in maintaining our inner equilibrium. We need to register and act on our physical sensations to keep our bodies safe.”
Perhaps you've had a friend come alongside you in the midst of distress and suggest that you, "just breathe". Your initial thought may be, "What the heck is that supposed to mean? I'm clearly breathing, can you not see my chest rise and fall? I never think about my breathing, so why should I now? I've got much more pressing matters at hand!" Well, the friend may not even have truly known it, but he or she doled out some pretty darn good advice. Slow, intentional breathing induces a little bit of internal magic called vagal tone. Let's talk about it.
Our nervous system is comprised of many branches, two of them being the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. These are colloquially divided into the 'fight or flight' system, and the 'rest and digest' system due to the internal shifts that takes place when our bodies are either strained or relaxed. Although both are governed by the autonomic system, meaning they're involuntary, there are four cranial nerves that we can influence to positively modify the parasympathetic (rest & digest) system. The little gold mine that I want to focus on is the vagus nerve, the tenth of the cranial nerves. It's responsible for internal organ functions such as digestion, respiration, reflexes, and heart rate, and it happens to be the longest cranial nerve in the body. When I mention increased 'vagal tone', I'm describing the heightened activity of this nerve.
When we practice deep, slow breathing, we are essentially telling our bodies that we're still in control. For instance, exhaling longer than you inhale puts the ventral vagal network into action, promoting the rest and digest response while lowering your heart rate. This breathing from the diaphragm also reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. At the same time, lower ventilation levels improve frontal lobe function, allowing us to make logical decisions under stress. Additionally, professionals have linked vagal tone to decreasing symptoms in people with migraine headaches, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and more. There is even data to correlate increased tone to improved mood and attention. Getting the idea?
"By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.” -Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Now that you're filled to the brim with evidence, let's address 'the how'. Outlined below are three breathing exercises to help you relax and tell your body that you have the reins. Like I've mentioned in the past, this certainly isn't an exhaustive list, (it truly doesn't even scratch the surface). This is a summary of practices that are simple enough that I actually do them somewhat regularly - my ultimate hope for you as well.
I should quickly mention that there are several other methods to increasing vagal tone, including cold exposure, exercise, and even socializing. The emphasis is commonly on breathing due to its remarkable accessibility and effectiveness. Now, onto method number one.
1) Box Breaths.
This one is as straightforward as they come. Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four... repeat. This is an easy exercise to pull out anywhere, even for one or two minutes. Try to focus on getting in a relatively comfortable position and using your diaphragm as much as possible. This will help to remove tension in the chest, shoulders, and upper traps. It may be helpful to place one hand on the belly and one on the chest to get a sense of what respiratory muscles you're using. Try to move your lower hand more!
2) 4-7-8 Breaths.
Breathe in quietly through the nose for four seconds, hold it for seven, and exhale forcefully through the mouth making a "whoosh" sound for eight seconds. Try to repeat this for four breath cycles, and no more than eight at one time according to Andrew Weil, MD. This one is slightly more advanced than the first, simply based on the fact that you're required to hold your breath for longer.
3) Five Finger Breathing.
I give full credit to Jud Brewer, MD for this one. "Start by placing the index finger of one hand on the outside of the pinky finger on your other hand. As you breathe in, trace up to the tip of your pinky, and as you breathe out, trace down the inside of your pinky. Then on the next inhale, trace up the outside of your ring finger, and on the exhale, trace down the inside of your ring finger. Inhale and trace up the outside of your middle finger. Exhale and trace down the inside of your middle finger. Continue until you’ve traced your entire hand, and then reverse the process as you trace from your thumb back to your pinky." The reason this strategy is so effective is because it incorporates somatosensation into the equation. Being in a multi-sensory experience gives you more connection to your physical self, greater influencing the positive physiological effects that come with breathing.
There you have it. Three simple exercises to tap into your vagal tone, a wonderful piece of internal machinery that all of us could put some work into.
Life is stressful, and life is messy. Things get put on you, and things get ripped away. In the midst of it all, hold on to your breath. Take advantage of its powerful influence. Rest in the gentle rise and fall of its cadence. By doing so, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to come back down, not only causing immediate physiological benefits, but also leading to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.