Breathing is essential to life. And because it’s automatic, we don’t have to focus on breathing the way we do eating or walking, so we rarely think about it. But maybe we should. Taking in oxygen is fundamental to good health, and for all the time and effort we spend on our diets, it’s interesting that we spend so little on breath.
Though Western philosophy does not devote much mental energy to considering the breath, our friends in the East have a different take. Chinese, Tibetan, and other Eastern traditional healing systems have long recognized the relationship between breath and body. Breathing connects us with our environment. The process of breathing — and especially conscious, meditative breathing — allows us to receive the nourishment of oxygen and experience release from our physical, mental, and emotional burdens.
When we inhale, we take in energy and connect our bodies to the universe. That energy is vital for our well-being. In fact, oxygen energizes our cells. The other side of the process, exhaling, removes carbon dioxide. In other words, breathing maintains balance.
The Value of Deep Breathing
When we are very hungry, we need to eat more. By the same token, when our bodies are deprived of oxygen, we need to breathe deeply. This is most evident after intense exertion, say, a short sprint.
But deep breathing shouldn’t be reserved for exercise alone. When we don’t inhale deeply enough, we decrease the amount of oxygen our breath delivers to our cells, reducing their ability to produce energy. In addition, deeper breathing removes more carbon dioxide, along with other potential toxins. Respiration also balances your body’s pH, reducing the acidity that can impair immunity and other functions.
When incorporated into meditation, deep, conscious breathing reduces inflammation, improves autonomic nervous responses, boosts circulation, and decreases cortisol levels, all of which affect our metabolism of glucose.
Deep breathing helps the heart, too. Reduced blood oxygen forces the heart to pump more; increased oxygen has the opposite effect. In addition, deep breathing reduces oxidative stress, enhances vital energy, and improves cognition.
Over the last century, our breathing volume has decreased. This is partially due to modern work life, which puts us at computers rather than in fields. Physical demands are lower, plus we’re often hunched over, which restricts lung capacity.
Normally, we breathe in about half a liter, or two cups, of air. But our capacity is much larger. On a truly deep inhalation, we can take in about three liters. We have gotten into the habit of taking shallow breaths. How do we break out of it?
The answer is mindfulness. If we are aware of our body, we naturally take deeper breaths. The most obvious choice for enhancing mindfulness is meditation, but other disciplines, such as yoga and tai chi, also rely on harnessing the breath. These practices bolster the immune system on the genetic level; they improve cardiovascular health, grow connections between neurons, and decrease anxiety and depression.
Engaging the diaphragm, the muscle between the chest and the abdomen, is key to deepening the breath. All too often, we breathe with our abdomen. By working to engage our diaphragm, as well, we improve our ability to take in more air. Add to that a slower exhalation. Give the body time to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. Then exhale.
How we bring the air in is also important. Inhaling through the nostrils warms and moisturizes the air and filters out bacteria, viruses, dust, and other foreign objects. The nose pre-processes air for our lungs; breathing through it can reduce allergies and other respiratory ailments.
While Western medicine does not recognize the difference, many ancient systems understand the role each nostril plays and the significance of alternating nostrils during breathing exercises. Different emotional, psychological, and spiritual qualities are associated with each nostril: the left relates to aversion and anger; the right is associated with desire and attachment. By alternating nostrils, we can help restore emotional balance, and research shows that this type of breathing can support relaxation and improve our cardiorespiratory performance.
I think the first step toward developing a sound breathing regimen is to change our attitudes towards the breath. If we think of oxygen as a key nutrient, the way we think of vitamin C or iron, we’ll naturally want to inhale as much as possible. Given the benefits to immunity, cardiovascular health, sugar metabolism, and cellular energy, it just makes sense to breathe deeply. Do it now, and you’ll feel the immediate effects. Just think of the long-term benefits.
Our bodies aren’t shy about telling us that we are stressed out! Muscle tension, backaches, stomach upset, headaches, burnout and other illness states are ways in which the body signals to us the need to relax. Rather than run for that anti-anxiety medication, we can utilize our easiest, natural defense against stress: our breathing. The way we breathe can affect our emotions and mental states as well as determine how we physically respond to stress.
Fight or Flight Response vs. Relaxation Response
The general physiological response to stress is called the stress response or “fight or flight” response. When we experience stress, hormones activated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system flood our bloodstream to signal a state of readiness against potential threats to our well being. While these hormones serve to help us act quickly and with great strength during emergency situations, they exemplify the concept that there can be “too much of a good thing.” Chronic stress results in excess release of stress hormones, which can cause immune-system malfunction, gastrointestinal issues, and blood vessel deterioration, among other health complications. Over time, such symptoms can evolve into degenerative diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
We can help preserve and enhance our health, though, by refusing to fall victim to chronic release of stress hormones, even if we are not able to control when or how stressful situations challenge us. We can learn to effectively manage our physiological reaction to stressors by teaching the body to induce a relaxation response. A relaxation response counteracts the effects of the fight or flight response by helping to boost immune system function, reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, and protect tissues from damage caused by stress-hormones.
Breathing and Relaxation Response
The way we breathe affects our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the branches of which signal automatic physiological reactions in the body, like the fight or flight and relaxation responses. ANS activity is outside of our conscious control. The ANS is responsible for managing our breathing, heart rate, body temperature, digestion, and other basic processes necessary for survival. While the sympathetic branch of the ANS initiates the stress response, the parasympathetic branch induces a relaxation response. Our somatic nervous system, over which we do have conscious control, makes possible the movements of our eyes, limbs, and mouths, for example, as well as how (not whether) we breathe. Thus, we can, through somatic manipulation of our breath, affect which ANS branch remains active, especially during moments of stress.
One of the best means of inducing a relaxation response is through diaphragmatic breathing: inhaling deeply through the chest and virtually into the stomach. Engaging the diaphragm may be the key to inducing a relaxation response through deep breathing because the diaphragm’s close proximity to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve which supplies approximately 75 percent of all parasympathetic fibers to the rest of the body, and may be stimulated through diaphragmatic movement. Conversely, thoracic breathing that is limited to the chest cavity is associated with the sympathetic branch stress response.
Self-Empowerment through Breathing
Situations may catalyze stress for us when we are uncertain about them or unable to control their outcome. We may feel helpless, overwhelmed, fearful, or forced into stifling our true feelings, and may experience additional anxiety over our inability to control the resulting hormonal fight or flight response. The key to stress management is recognition that while we may not be able to control the stressor, we can always control our reaction to it. We have choices: whether to relax through diaphragmatic breathing techniques until we feel ready to make beneficial decisions, or to just react while on sympathetic branch automatic pilot. Even if we don’t find a solution to the stressful situation, choosing to take time out to breathe protects our bodies from detrimental effects of stress.
Upon experiencing fear or anxiety, our diaphragm involuntarily flattens and we breathe in a shallow manner as our body prepares for action. Armed with the knowledge that we can create a counter-response by breathing deeply, we can change any automatic course of action. When a stressor engages us, we can consciously control the speed and fullness with which we inhale, trusting that a relaxation response will happen as long as we keep breathing in this manner and do not lose patience. Recognizing the need to breathe diaphragmatically is half the battle; actually doing it is what empowers and frees us.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Techniques
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lie down on your back or sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your back as straight as possible (maybe against a wall) and close your eyes. Place your hands on your abdomen. Slowly inhale, filling your lungs and what seems like your stomach, to the point where your hands rise with the breath. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then slowly exhale completely. Repeat this process for many breaths, savoring the recognition that you are sending life-sustaining oxygen to all the cells of your body.
One of the keys to creating a relaxation response is to “be the breath.” Focusing on the breath helps you be present. When thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them, let them go, then refocus the mind on the sound of your breath. Perhaps visualize a relaxing scene or imagine continuous ocean waves slowly rolling into the shoreline. Maybe listening to peaceful music or repeating a mantra in your head that brings you serenity will help you free your mind of distracting thoughts. Your memory is another tool you have to facilitate relaxation. Recalling a time of great happiness can help you replace negative feelings with pleasant ones. Tapping into your particular spiritual belief system at this time might also help you relax; some people find that saying a prayer while breathing deeply can help decrease stress.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Offers Multidimensional Benefits
Bridging the mind and body through deep breathing is a multidimensional experience. Because the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS are regulated by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, rather than neural impulses from the brain, brain stem and spinal cord, these branches are influenced by our emotional responses to environmental stimuli. Neurotransmitters create physiological reactions by relaying information based upon our feelings to various cells within the body. The digestive tract is especially rich with neurotransmitter receptor sites, which may explain “gut feelings.”
Fear, for example, initiates thoracic breathing associated with sympathetic branch activity. When we breathe in a shallow manner, we utilize only half of the alveoli (air filled sacs) in our lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing employs all the alveoli in our lungs while helping the body and mind relax. By repeatedly expanding our lungs to full capacity, we improve our metabolism by increasing oxygen supply to the rest of the body, promoting detoxification in the lungs, and enhancing digestion.
We may also be able to change the emotions which engendered the stress response by releasing their power over us through the breath. Clear thinking and creative decision-making may follow and lead to more positive emotions. The multidimensional effects of deep breathing illustrate the complex connections between the mind and the body and enhance our understanding of stress-related disease prevention and treatment.
When It Comes to Stress, Be Your Breath
The solution to stress lies within us. Nature has given us a defense mechanism with which to combat the physical effects of stress: parasympathetic nervous system activity catalyzed by diaphragmatic breathing. While breathing alone may not resolve the issue stressing us, it can empower us to healthfully adapt on mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual levels.
Consciously breathing is a core element of mind-body philosophies such as yoga,meditation and Tai Chi (diaphragmatic breathing as described in this article most closely resembles meditation). Mind-body disciplines, such as Yoga and Tai Chi, which embrace specific postures and/or fluid movements offer added benefits of improved balance, flexibility and circulation. Regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing through any mind-body technique can help us establish a relaxation routine. When something is routine, we can “just do it” (i.e. let our thoughts go because we don’t need to think so much about what we are doing). A movement–based breathing practice may be the best means of relaxation for more physically active people, and can be a great way for less-active folks to get some exercise.
For some, spirituality may permeate the mind-body breathing practice. The role of spirituality in stress management may relate to how we perceive situations beyond our control. Wayne Dyer, an inspiration guru, lectures and writes that we are eternal spiritual beings who are having temporary human experiences, which seems like another way of saying “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Believing in a higher power (whatever that means to us individually) can relieve us of the perceived burden of always having to handle things on our own.
Learning to cultivate a relaxation response may involve trying various methods until you discover the one that works for you. Finding a technique that you enjoy is the key to making it a lifestyle habit. When you feel the effects of stress… just breathe.
References and Resources:
The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music.
Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago long ago argued that the vagus nerve is [the nerve of compassion] (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding.
Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with high-baseline vagus nerve activity are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism: that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.
Your body’s levels of stress hormones are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) . The ANS has two components that balance each other, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS turns up your nervous system. It helps us handle what we perceive to be emergencies and is in charge of the flight-or-fight response.
The PNS turns down the nervous system and helps us to be calm. It promotes relaxation, rest, sleep, and drowsiness by slowing our heart rate, slowing our breathing, constricts the pupils of our eyes, increases the production of saliva in our mouth, and so forth.
The vagus nerve is the nerve that comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your relaxation response. And this nervous system uses the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. If your brain cannot communicate with your diaphragm via the release of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve (for example, impaired by botulinum toxin), then you will stop breathing and die.
Acetylcholine is responsible for learning and memory. It is also calming and relaxing, which is used by vagus nerve to send messages of peace and relaxation throughout your body. New research has found that acetylcholine is a major brake on inflammation in the body . In other words, stimulating your vagus nerve sends acetylcholine throughout your body, not only relaxing you but also turning down the fires of inflammation which is related to the negative effects from stress.
Exciting new research has also linked the vagus nerve to improved neurogenesis, increased BDNF output (brain-derived neurotrophic factor is like super fertilizer for your brain cells) and repair of brain tissue, and to actual regeneration throughout the body.
As you get older, your immune system produces more inflammatory molecules, and your nervous system turns on the stress response, promoting system breakdown and aging.
That’s not just talk. It’s backed by scientific studies.
For example, Kevin Tracey, the director of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered how the brain controls the immune system through a direct nerve-based connection.
He describes this as the inflammatory reflex (i). Simply put, it is the way the immune system responds to the mind.
Let me explain.
You immune system is controlled by a nerve call the vagus nerve.
But this isn’t just any nerve.
It is the most important nerve coming from the brain and travels to all the major organs.
And you can activate this nerve — through relaxation, meditation, and other ancient practices, such as the Mayan system of Light Language, combined with Vagus Nerve Activation Techniques given recently by the Group & Steve Rother, the Vagus Nerve can be activated and worked with energetically through geometry, frequency, color, and light.
What’s the benefit of that?
Well, by activating the vagus nerve, you can control your immune cells, reduce inflammation, and even prevent disease and aging!
It’s true. By creating positive brain states — as meditation masters have done for centuries — you can switch on the vagus nerve and control inflammation.
You can actually control your gene function by this method. Activate the vagus nerve, and you can switch on the genes that help control inflammation. Inflammation is one of the central factors of disease and aging.
Even more fascinating was the discovery that our bodies can regenerate at any age.
Diane Krause, MD, PhD, from Yale University discovered that our own innate adult stem cells (cells that can turn into any cell in the body from our bone marrow) could be transformed into liver, bowel, lung, and skin cells. (ii)
This is a phenomenal breakthrough.
It means that we have the power to create new cells and renew our own organs and tissues at any age.
And how are these stem cells controlled?
You guessed it: the vagus nerve.
For example, Theise et al.  have found that stems cells are directly connected to the vagus nerve. Activating the vagus nerve can stimulate stem cells to produce new cells and repair and rebuild your own organs.
So relaxation — a state of calm, peace, and stillness – can activate the vagus nerve.
And the vagus nerve, in turn, activates your stem cells to regenerate and renew your tissues and organs.
Scientists have even shown how meditation makes the brain bigger and better.
They’ve mapped out the brain function of “professionalmeditators” by bringing Tibetan lamas trained in concentration and mental control into the laboratory.
The result? They found higher levels of gamma brain waves and thicker brain cortexes (the areas associated with higher brain function) in meditators. (iii)
Relaxation can have other powerful effects on our biology.
In biology, being a complex system that can adapt to its environment and that is resilient and flexible is critical to health.
The same is true for us.
The more complex and resilient we are, the healthier we are.
Take, for example, our heartbeat.
Its complexity is called heart rate variability (HRV) or beat-to-beat variability. The more complex your HRV, the healthier you are. The least complex heart rate is the worst — a flat line.
So what does this have to do with relaxation?
The HRV is also controlled by the vagus nerve.
As you can see, turning on the relaxation response and activating that vagus nerve is critical to health.
Activating the Vagus Nerve Will:
* Reduce inflammation
* Help regenerate your organs and cells by activating stem cells
* Increase your heart rate variability
* Thicken your brain (which normally shrinks with aging).
* Boost immune function
* Modulate your nervous system
* Reduce depression and stress
* Enhance performance
* Improve your quality of life
Not bad for just learning to chill out!
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered telomeres, explained that, ultimately, they become so short that the end of our DNA unravels and we can no longer replicate our cells, so they die.
Remarkably, mental stress produces a more rapid shortening of the telomeres — and leads to faster aging.
What’s even more remarkable?
In a study of caregivers of sick patients, the health of the caregivers’ telomeres was determined by their attitude!
It sounds impossible, but it’s true.
The caregivers who felt the care to be a burden had shorter telomeres, while those who saw their work as an opportunity to be compassionate had no shortening. (iv)
The Dalai Lama said that the seat of compassion is actually biological and — necessary for survival.
Perhaps the development of compassion and wisdom in coping with unfavorable life conditions is the true key to longevity.
It just may be that working to understand our true nature through the cultivation of our minds and hearts with positive practices like meditation or similar techniques is critical to health and longevity.
The ways we can change our bodies through changing our minds is not longer a theory.
There is a new scientific language to understand how the qualities of the mind control the body through effects on the vagus nerve, immune cells, stem cells, telomeres, DNA, and more.
Remember, your body has all the resources and infinitely adaptable systems to self-regulate, repair, regenerate, and thrive.
You simply have to learn how to work with your body, rather than against it. Then you can have a healthy, thriving life – and live out your full lifespan, which can be as high as 120+ years!
But here’s something even cooler – the research that Dacher Ketlner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley is doing shows that stimulating that vagus nerve is not only good for you – it’s good for the planet!
“Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism – compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.”
There you go. Do it for love.
Have you heard about Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory? The theory, already 20 years old, replaces our old notions of how the sympathetic (fight/flight) and parasympathetic nervous systems (rest and recuperation) help to keep us calm, alert and safe. The area covered by Polyvagal Theory is huge. It impacts the way we understand our nervous system, senses, emotions, social self and behaviors. We see diagnoses like autism, sensory modulation disorder, borderline personality and others, in a new light.
Polyvagal Theory claims that the nervous system employs a hierarchy of strategies to both regulate itself and to keep us safe in the face of danger. In fact, it’s all about staying safe.
Our “highest” level strategy is a mechanism Porges calls social engagement. It is a phenomenal system – connecting the social muscles of the face (eyes, mouth and middle ear) with the heart. You knew that your heart came alive with social interaction, and it’s true! This system is regulated through a myelinated branch of the vagus nerve. In evolutionary terms, this is our most evolved strategy (mammals only) for keeping ourselves safe. We use this all the time to clear up misunderstandings, get help, plead for forgiveness, and so on.
The next mechanism, or strategy, is fight or flight. It’s regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. This system is our fall-back strategy when social engagement isn’t a good fit. (Think of seeing someone sneaking up on you!) Note that freeze is not a part of fight or flight.
Our freeze option is primal and is a remnant of our reptilian past. Freeze is a great strategy for turtles and lizards, but it’s usually a bad idea for humans – think of fainting. Therefore, we typically use it last, when social engagement and fight/flight aren’t going to work for us. But there are good uses for freeze. During severe injury, it shuts us down and turns off our registration of pain. We also make use of it during sex, and it helps women regulate pain and response to pain during labor.
Now these systems appear to work in tandem. The social engagement system puts the brakes on the other (fight, flight, freeze) strategies, thus keeping our heart and body active while we work through a situation. The social engagement system will release the brakes to engage a different response to the environment (i.e. running) if engagement doesn’t help to get us into a safe situation.
What Can Go Wrong
We want our nervous system to operate using the social exchange most of the time. It is our most evolved way of being. It is restful and healthy because it allows our gut and other organs to do their job uninterrupted.
However, some of us are programmed from an early age to work from a fight/flight mode. Think of people who are sensory sensitive and recoil from sound, touch, smell or taste. Think of people with autism (in this case, the face to heart connection is not working). Think of people with borderline personality, depression and perhaps other disorders, too. When we are not able to work from our social engagement strategy, then we revert to a modified fight/flight strategy, which puts us in high alert. If we use too much of the fight/flight or freeze strategies, we may end up with gut issues because the gut comes to a halt and we stop digesting food during fight/flight activation.
The Polyvagal Theory has gained great acceptance over the years as pieces of it are shown to hold under laboratory findings. From a psychological viewpoint, it provides us with a rich understanding of self-regulation in the body. From a sensory processing viewpoint, it informs our understanding of sensory modulation.
If you are unfamiliar with the topic, check out the many articles on Dr.Porges’ website. The most comprehensive article is The Polyvagal Perspective, and it is published here on the NIH Public Access site. It contains the physiological underpinnings of the theory as well as perspectives on development, emotions, trauma and many other topics. There is a short video of it here.
Two researchers looked at a biological marker of the social exchange system, RSA, in typical children and in children with sensory modulation issues. RSA is the measure of high-frequency fluctuation in the heart between heart beats. It is a window into the social exchange system. The researchers found that children with sensory modulation issues have a lower level of RSA than their peers, meaning that these children are better prepared to put the breaks on social strategies and instead use fight-or-flight strategies.
As part of the study, the children were (each in turn) given a sensory challenge. The chairs they were seated on tilted backwards unexpectedly. The level of RSA was monitored in each child throughout the incident. The RSA of typical children dropped quickly and then stayed low for a short time. The children with poor sensory modulation skills had a very brief drop of RSA and a quick rebound to their RSA baseline.
This implies that children with sensory modulation symptoms use different strategies to handle safety-related situations than their peers. At this time, it is harder to draw greater conclusions since we do not have an easy-access window into the fight/flight system or the freeze system. With time, we’ll get a better understanding of this. The article can be found here.
Perhaps the most interesting new work making use of the Polyvagal Theory is the work of A. D. (Bud) Craig. Mapping our emotions, this is what he found. (Read about it here.)
Emotions arise from feelings in our organs and gut. The feelings are sent via the vagus nerve to the Anterior Insular Cortex (AIC) in the brain. (There’s a lot going on in the vagus nerve – think of it as a cable with lots of separate wires.) The AIC captures feelings over time and stores them as snapshots of feelings. This is our working emotional memory. These feelings are massaged and integrated with the social exchange to give us both an emotional response to the world around us as well as a safety-driven strategy.
Think of this: I am relaxing in a lounge chair on the beach. I feel safe. Suddenly, a beach ball hits me. My fight or flight instinct kicks it and the sympathetic nervous system stops everything that’s happening (i.e. digestion) in my organs and gut. The gut passes the feeling of stoppage as “alarm” to the brain. This translates in the brain to fear and my body is set in motion. I quickly turn and see it’s a ball and that a child is nearby and smiling at me. My social engagement strategy puts the breaks on my fight/flight response and also calms my heart. I smile at the child. This sends a sense of relief to my gut and it in turn sends a “warm” feeling to the AIC. My heart is still pounding from the surprise, but my response is guided by compassion.
In the above scenario, we specifically looked at a situation with a challenge to safety. But in fact, we spend much of our time worrying about safety. Unless I am completely safe, listening to quiet music in a locked room, I will most likely have safety challenges to respond to. The challenge may be from the scary book I am reading, or from the sense of anxiety I feel when I drop a spoon on the floor. Almost any activity will involve the combined interaction of the various strategies. The bottom line: we are constantly adjusting ourselves to meet the world. Polyvagal Theory gives us a look at how this works.
This is pretty complex stuff – and the theory is still in flux. It changes with each new study that looks at the implications of Polyvagal Theory on our response to the world. It is going to impact research greatly in the months and years ahead. As I mentioned at the beginning, Polyvagal Theory adds a new dimension to how we see autism, sensory issues and other disorders and will, I think, inform our interventions for those disorders in a big way.
College is an invigorating world for most students, a time without parental restraints and a period in life when new experiences occur on a regular basis. But this backdrop can also be a barrier to classroom concentration and attention.
New research, published in the journal Mindfulness, suggests practicing meditation before class can help students focus and lead to better grades.
In the study, George Mason University professor Dr. Robert Youmans and University of Illinois doctoral student Jared Ramsburg conducted three classroom experiments at a California university to see if meditation might help students focus better and retain information.
Researchers randomly selected students for basic meditation instructions before a lecture and discovered that the students who meditated before the lecture scored better on a subsequent quiz than students who did not meditate.
In one experiment, the meditation even predicted which students passed and which students failed the quiz.
Interestingly, the researchers also showed that the effect of the meditation was stronger in classes where more freshman students were enrolled, showing that meditation might have a bigger effect on freshman students.
“One difficulty for researchers who study meditation is that the supposed benefits of meditation do not always replicate across different studies or populations, and so we have been trying to figure out why.
“This data from this study suggest that meditation may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing. Sadly, freshmen classes probably contain more of these types of students than senior courses because student populations who have difficulty self-regulating are also more likely to leave the university,” said Youmans, an assistant professor of psychology.
Youmans believes that self-reflection might therefore have an important place in freshmen seminars or institutions with high attrition rates.
A significant finding from the exercise was a marked improvement in student scores after only six minutes of written meditation exercises — and the researchers believe with more extensive training and coaching that the results could improve.
“Personally, I have found meditation to be helpful for mental clarity, focus and self-discipline,” said Ramsburg, lead author of the study and a practicing Buddhist.
“I think that if mindfulness can improve mental clarity, focus and self-discipline, then it might be useful in a variety of settings and for a variety of goals.”
Youmans also suggests that, in theory, other forms of active self-reflection such as prayer, taking long walks or even just taking the time to mindfully plan out your day in the morning could have some of the same positive effects as meditation.
“Basically, becoming just a little bit more mindful about yourself and your place in the world might have a very important, practical benefit — in this case, doing better in college.”
Breathing is the FIRST place not the LAST place one should investigate when any disordered energy presents itself.”
– Sheldon Saul Hendler, MD Ph.D., The Oxygen Breakthrough
Arguably the most important aspect of mental and physical health and well-being is the respiratory process. This has been known throughout the history of mankind. Consider that during the course of your life you are “inspired” by ideas, “aspire” toward your goals and dreams, and finally “expire” at the end of your life. Many of the ancients developed lifestyles and physical exercises such as yoga and qui-gong that are based around the patterns of breathing and respiratory cycles. So why is breathing so important?
It has been suggested that the average individual can survive:
40 days without food
4 days without water
4 minutes without oxygen
It is true that oxygen is absolutely essential for all human function. In fact, the primary homeostatic mechanism in the human body is designed around necessitating appropriate cellular oxygenation. The respiratory and cardiovascular systems provide and properly distribute oxygen to the cellular mitochondria where it serves as the terminal electron acceptor in the oxidative phosphoralization process and the formation of cellular ATP. All human performance, energy, and function is based on appropriate tissue oxygenation.
Endurance, the ability to sustain vigorous effort, is substantiated by the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the working muscles (1). Although many factors have an impact, endurance and human working capacity end when the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems can no longer keep up with the demands for oxygen. In addition, the structural and functional integrity of brain and viscera are profoundly dependent on regular oxygen supply. Any disturbance of this supply can be life threatening.
The world famous Dr. Arthur Guyton theorized that all chronic pain, suffering and diseases are caused from a lack of oxygen at the cellular level (2). Lack of cellular oxygen is termed hypoxia. Hypoxia has been implicated in central nervous system pathology in a number of disorders including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and various other neurodegenerative diseases (3). Among other diseases, regions of low oxygen tension are commonly found in malignant tumors and are associated with increased frequency of tumor invasion and metastasis (3)
Consider this: The average human being breaths between 12 – 18 breaths a minute. That equates to 18,000 to 26,000 breaths every 24 hours. It has been suggested that at rest we should consume 6 breaths in a minute to supply our needs. The extra activity involved in our short, shallow breathing habits is robbing us of precious energy, producing toxic waste products and promoting disease in our bodies.
Dr. Schunemann actually found in a long-term study that lung function predicts mortality rates. He explains, “The lung is a primary defense organism against environmental toxins. It could be that impaired pulmonary function could lead to decreased tolerance against these toxins. Researchers also have speculated that decreased pulmonary function could underlie an increase in oxidative stress from free radicals, and we know that oxidative stress plays a role in the development of many diseases.(4)”
Dr. Wendell Hendricks, (Two-time Nobel Laureate, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Cancer Research, Hendricks Research Foundation) said the following. ”Cancer is a condition within the body where the oxidation has become so depleted that the body cells have degenerated beyond physiological control. Similarly, the true cause of allergy is lowered the oxidation process within the body, causing the affected individual to be sensitive to foreign substances entering the body. Only when the oxidation mechanism is restored to its original high state of efficiency can the sensitivity be eliminated.”
Effective and efficient oxygenation of the cells, tissues, and organs of our body is an absolute energy necessity. Our respiration cycles are governed by the autonomic nervous system. When your body is under stress you tend to take short, shallow breaths. Because these breaths only penetrate into the upper portion of the chest and lungs they are called “chest breaths.” This reduces your bodies’ ability to effectively oxygenate. This is appropriate in order to increase respiratory rate when you are under truly stressful situations, like being chased by a lion or sprinting on a track. However, when it continues for an extended period of time it sets up the pathological processes described earlier.
Several studies have shown that heart disease, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain patients have an intimate relationship with persistent shallow, chest breathing behaviors. Several researchers have suggested maintenance of posture and breathing habits to be the most important factor in health and energy promotion.
Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is the proper way to respirate. Taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths is necessary to get the oxygen rich air deep into the base of the lungs where three times as many blood vessels are available for respiratory exchange compared to the upper lung region. Amazingly, when we are taking deep breaths, our diaphragm which is attached to the heart, is able to pull the heart down and massage it with each breath. This process optimizes the body’s natural ability to pump fluid and nutrients into the heart vasculature and suck out the wastes. In the absence of diaphragmatic breathing, the body is unable to adequately deliver nutrients and eliminate wastes from the heart
Dr. Guy Hendricks says “Healthy breathing should be the first thing taught to a heart patient. A Dutch Study conducted by a Dr. Dixhoorn, compared two groups of heart attack patients. The first group was taught simple diaphragmatic breathing, while the second group was given no training in breathing. The breathing group had no further heart attacks, while 7 of the 12 members of the second group had second heart attacks over the next 2 years.”
The diaphragm is also attached to the lumbar spine and produces a natural rhythm of movement that stretches the back and pumps fluid and essential nutrients into the avascular soft tissue structures like the intervertebral disc and ligaments preventing and possibly correcting spinal degeneration and chronic pain syndromes. The effects continue in that proper diaphragmatic movement pumps cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid around the spinal cord), which results in an increase in brain metabolism and the resulting feelings of physical and mental well-being and enhanced mental alertness.
It is essential to focus on your breathing throughout the day. Take pauses in your activities to correct your posture and take long, deep breaths from the belly. The body responds to this stimulus by relaxing, understanding that it is not in a life-threatening situation (obviously if you are breathing long, slow, deep breaths you are not being chased by a lion). The parasympathetic nervous system is activated, calming stress hormones, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. As you consume more oxygen and release metabolic waste products like carbon dioxide you will improve your mood and energy levels.
Steps to Tranform Your Breathing Habits:
*If you notice your chest moving a lot as you breathe – than you guessed it – you’re a chest breather. The good news is that you can change that today and experience a new life of energy and “inspiration.”
To Optimize Breathing Habits For Life
I am open to receive with every breath I breathe.”
– Michael Sun
1. Engel R, Vemulpad S. The Effect of Combining Manual Therapy with Exercise on the Respiratory Function of Normal Indivuals: A Randomized Control Trial. JMPT Sept 2007;30, 7;509-513.
2. Guyton, Arthur C. The Textbook of Medical Physiology, (5th Edition.) Pennsylvania: WB Saunders Co., 1976
3. Acker T, Acker H. Review: Cellular oxygen sensing need in CNS function: physiological and pathological implications. The Journal of ExperimentalBiology, 2004; 207;3171-3188
4. Schunemann HJ, Dorn J, Grant BJB, Winkelstein W, Jr., Trevisan M. Pulmonary Function Is a Long-term Predictor of Mortality in the General Population 29-Year Follow-up of the Buffalo Health Study. Chest2000;118(3)656-664.
5. Bradley. “Hyperventilation Syndrome.” Celestial Arts (1991).
6. Hymes and Nuernberger. Breathing Patterns Found in Heart Attack Patients. Research Bulletin of the Himalayan International International Institute. 1980 2:2; 10-12.
7. Nixon P, Human Functions of the Heart. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1987: 37
8. Luna-Massey P, Peper E. Clinical Observations on Breath Patterns and Pain Relief in Chronic Pain Patients. The Association for Applied Psychophsiology and Biofeedback. 1986; 82-84.
9. Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. Conscious Breathing, Pg. 16.
Dr. David Jockers owns and operates Exodus Health Center in Kennesaw, GA. He is a Maximized Living doctor. His expertise is in weight loss, customized nutrition & exercise, & structural corrective chiropractic care. For more information go to www.drjockers.com Dr. Jockers is also available for long distance phone consultations to help you beat disease and reach your health goals.
Corey Schink found forgiveness in the form of his late stepfather who appeared to him in a dream.
“My stepdad Jim was a big bear of a man,” the Smithland, Iowa, native recalled. “We got into a fight right before he died.”
Schink carried that guilt for months, along with feelings of aimlessness in life.
One night, his stepfather appeared in a dream, telling Schink that he would be all right and that all was forgiven.
“It was as if a wave of emotions flooded over me,” Schink said. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten to that point without Eiriu Eolas.”
An Irish Gaelic term that means “growth of knowledge,” Eiriu Eolas (pronounced Aye-Roo Oh-lahs) is a breathing and meditation program which combines modern neuroscience with ancient wisdom.
The attributes of Eiriu Eolas is that it detoxifies one mind and body while liberating one’s heart.
Discovering the yoga-influenced meditation on the Internet, Schink credits Eiriu Eolas with turning his life around.
“I wasn’t a very happy person before Eiriu Eolas,” he admitted. “But within six months, I was able to turn my life around.”
Currently, a Briar Cliff University social work major, Schink is also a Eiriu Eolas-certified trainer. He will be teaching the program as part of four-week Western Iowa Tech Community College’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, starting in April.
Explaining Eiriu Eolas, he said it’s a way for a person to relax from the stresses of everyday life while working through past emotional and psychological trauma.
Through a series of progressive breathing exercises, it will eventually allow a person to release repressed emotions and mental blockages while rejuvenating and detoxifying one’s mind and body.
“Eiriu Eolas moves the barriers that stand between you and true peace, happiness,” Schink said. “Ultimately, it help you to achieve a successful, fulfilling life.”
Since learning the meditation, Schink said he’s able to enjoy life to its fullest.
“You know how carefree you felt as a kid?” he asked. “That’s how I feel all the time.”
This is why Schink said he enjoys teaching Eiriu Eolas to newcomers of all ages.
“No matter your age and fitness level, you can benefit from Eiriu Eolas,” he contends. “You’re learning how to breath again, beginning with a technique called pipe breathing before graduating to bioenergetic breathing, which allows a person to dig deep into his emotions.”
Which is important to Schink, since he’s interested in becoming a social worker, counseling at-risk kids.
“Through Eiriu Eolas, I’ve been able to strengthen my inner voice while silencing my inner critic,” he said. “It’s taught me to stay connected with my emotions and liberating me from the burdens that were keeping me down.”
Schink can’t help but smile.
“I am now living the life that I want to live,” he said.
What: Eiriu Eolas: The Growth of Knowledge meditation, taught by certified trainer Corey Schink
When: 6:30 p.m. Apr. 16, 23, 30 and May 7
Where: Room L416, Advance Sciences Building, Western Iowa Tech Community College, Sioux City
Contact: Institute for Lifelong Learning, (712) 274-8733
Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing – with a long, slow exhale – is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety. A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.
Heart disease is the number one killer in America. One way to improve your heart health is to focus on the vagus-friendy lifestyle habits I explore below. Well conditioned athletes have higher vagal tone because aerobic breathing creates healthy vagal tone, which results in a lower resting heart rate. Healthy cardiac function is directly linked to stimulating the vagus nerve.
In 1921, a German physiologist named Otto Loewi discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German: “Vagus Substance”). The “vagus substance” was later identified as acetylcholine and became the first neurotransmitter identified by scientists.
Vagusstuff is literally a tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales. You can consciously tap the power of your vagus nerve to create inner-calm on demand. This knowledge alone should be enough to reduce the fear-of-fear-itself and give you grace under pressure next time you need it.
What exactly is the vagus nerve?
The word vagus means “wandering” in Latin. The words vagabond, vague, and vagrant come from the same root. The vagus nerve is known as the wandering nerve because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way.
The vagus nerve is constantly sending sensory information about the state of the body’s organs “upstream” to your brain. In fact, 80-90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are dedicated to communicating the state of your viscera up to your brain. When people say “trust your gut” they are in many ways saying, “trust your vagus nerve.” Visceral feelings and gut-instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve.
As with any mind-body feedback loop, messages also travel “downstream” from your conscious mind through the vagus nerve signaling your organs to create an inner-calm so you can “rest-and-digest” during times of safety or to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight” in dangerous situations.
Your vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two polar opposite systems that create a complementary tug-of-war which allows your body to maintain homeostasis (inner-stability).
The sympathetic nervous system is geared to rev you up like the gas pedal in an automobile – it thrives on adrenaline and cortisol and is part of the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the polar opposite. The vagus nerve is command central for the function of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is geared to slow you down like the brakes on your car and uses neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and GABA to literally lower heart rate, blood pressure, and help your heart and organs slow down.
Unfortunately, the vagus nerve’s reflexive responses can backfire and turn it from comrade into saboteur. Anytime you psyche yourself out before an important event, feel intimidated, or insecure your vagus nerve interprets that you are in real danger which exacerbates these negative responses.
All of the physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, upset stomach, shakiness – are the result of your vagus nerve disengaging. Luckily, you have the power to harness your vagus nerve and keep it engaged to create grace under pressure. By understanding the incredible power of your vagus nerve you can begin practicing ways to flex it’s inhibitory strength to keep you mellow in times of distress.
7 habits that will stimulate your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure
1. Visualize the Vagus Nerve. Visualizing the vagus nerve as a wellspring of neurobiological ingredients that create mental and physical calmness will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not just the placebo effect in action. Remember, anytime you take a deep breath and exhale you are triggering a biological release of vagusstuff that will lower heart rate and blood pressure.
In addition to visualizing my vagus nerve I literally talk to it in the third person like it is a separate entity. You can try this too the next time you have the butterflies or are shaky before a big presentation or challenge. I will literally say to my vagus nerve things like, “I thought we were in this together. I need you to work with me here. Come on! Don’t let me down.” Somehow this helps take my ego out of the situation, puts me at ease, and makes me feel like I have a loyal comrade on deck. Try this trick the next time you need grace under pressure and see if it works for you.
I include this narrow anatomical drawing to help you visualize what the vagus nerve actually looks like in your body and to illustrate how long it is from top to bottom [see top left].
2. Practice, Practice, Practice. In a Psychology Today blog entry called No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect, I wrote about the power of your cerebellum to store muscle memory and allow you to perform gracefully under pressure. Without extensive practice we are forced to rely too much on the ‘executive function’ of our prefrontal cortex. Anytime you ‘over-think’ your performance you are more likely to choke, fumble and drop the ball. Arthur Ashe called this “paralysis by analysis.” Once the cerebellum is running the show your vagus nerve engages which helps create fluidity in your thoughts and actions.
3. Create Flow by balancing skill and challenge. The key to being in the ‘zone’ or creating a state of ‘flow’ is to find the sweet spot where your skill level perfectly matches the challenge. Get in the habit of continually nudging against your limits. By increasing the challenge gradually you become more skilled and comfortable with more difficult tasks.
Seek challenges that keep you nestled between anxiety and boredom. The key to peak performance is to have a heightened state of arousal but an inner sense of calm reflected in a perfect dynamic tension within the yin-yang of your autonomic nervous system. Although it is tempting to bite-off-more-than you can chew, your vagus nerve can betray you if it feels you’re in uncharted territory. By consistently increasing your skills you will feel at ease as you take on bigger challenges. That said, if you ever do have the opportunity to leap frog to a high-stakes challenge, use other techniques here to harness the vagus nerve and use it as an ally to get you through.
4. Reframe Priorites and Values. I strongly believe that friends, family, good health, and generosity of spirit matter more than any achievements that requires grace under pressure. In 2006, Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford University School of Education, conducted a series of experiments designed to reduce test-taking pressures. In the experiment he asked students to write a paragraph about a topic unrelated to the exam such as: “relationships with friends and family,” “religious values,” “athletic ability,” and “being good at art” before being tested. This brief writing assignment significantly improved the grades of students.
Before you face any challenge or test that fills you with performance anxiety get in the habit of reframing the importance of the event by putting it in a broader perspective of other things that you’re good at and what matters most to you. Even when the stakes are high, remember that every hurdle is an opportunity to learn. Mastery is a process. Overblown performance anxiety jacks up cortisol and andrenaline levels and makes you less likely to succeed.
5. Use neuroplasticity to re-wire habits of positive thinking. By generating positive emotions and a learned optimism you will ‘fire-and-wire’ together neural networks associated with a mindset that will give you grace under pressure. The vagus nerve picks up on signals coming from the ‘top-down’ and from the ‘bottom-up’ and uses these signals to re-wire your mind through neuroplasticity.
On January 28, 2013 researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland announced that they are hoping to help victims of stroke to overcome physical disabilities by helping their brains to ‘rewire’ themselves using a Vagal Nerve Stimulator (VNS). Lead researcher Dr Jesse Dawson, a stroke consultant and clinical senior lecturer in medicine, described the vagus nerve by saying, “That nerve is one of the major nerves that goes to the brain. By stimulating the nerves, you can cause upstream changes in the brain without having to go into the brain.”
It is hoped that the device will stimulate release of the brain’s own chemicals and help the brain form new neural connections which might improve participants’ arm mobility. In 2005, the FDA approved the use of VNS for treatment-resistant depression, although it’s use remains controversial… VNS is also used to treat epilepsy and tinnitus.
Dr Dawson added: “Evidence from animal studies suggests that vagus nerve stimulation could cause the release of neurotransmitters which help facilitate neural plasticity and help people re-learn how to use their arms after stroke, particularly if stimulation is paired with specific tasks.” The link between vagus nerve stimulation and neuroplasticity is strong. By focusing on creating healthy vagal tone you can trigger similar neuroplastic changes from the bottom-up. Creating a mindset of grace under pressure can be reinforced through the powerful mind-body connection of the vagus nerve.
6. Seek Daily Physicality. Cardio-respiratory activity, strength training and yoga stimulate vagal tone and harmonize hormones and neurotransmitters linked to grace under pressure. Aerobic activity stimulates healthy vagal tone due to the inherent diaphragmatic breathing of rhythmic cardio-respiratory exercise. Strength training with an emphasis on a robust exhale as you push the weight will stimulate vagal tone.
Yoga increases vagal tone, too. In a 2012 article published in Medical Hypotheses, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), New York Medical College (NYMC), and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (CCPS) presented evidence that yoga may be effective in treating patients with stress-related psychological and medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease.
The researchers hypothesize that stress causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic under-activity and sympathetic over-activity) as well as under-activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. According to the researchers, low GABA activity occurs in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, epilepsy, and chronic pain. The hypothesis advanced in this paper could explain why vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) works to decrease both seizure frequency and the symptoms of depression.
“Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances,” said Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, who is the study’s lead author. Streeter believes that “This paper provides a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders.”
6. Anxiety is contagious: Avoid anxious people. As a neurosurgeon, my father needed to have grace under pressure. He understood how delicate the sensors of his own vagus nerve were and would ask anyone in the operating room to leave if he or she was emitting an uptight vibe.
I’ve learned to do the same in life – especially before an important event. Because anxiety is catching, I will remove myself from the vicinity of anyone who is negative, cynical or doubtful of my ability to hit-it-out-of-the-park in a high stakes situation. The vagus nerve picks up on people’s vibe. Of course, none of us like to be around high strung people, but it is particularly important when you need to have grace under pressure.
If you are unable to remove yourself from anxious or nervous people (like in a waiting room for an audition or near the starting line of a race) I recommend using headphones with music that creates an appropriate mood and blocks the ability of others’ anxiety to affect your vagal tone. You can also close your eyes and do mindfulness or meditation maneuvers to distance your vagal nerve from picking up the nervous vibe of people in your vicinity. Obviously, people who emit easy-going, warm, upbeat emotions are much better for your health, longevity, and ability to perform with grace under pressure. Seek these people out!
7. Foster Loving & Kindness. In order to maintain healthy vagal tone it’s important to foster diverse and rewarding social connections. In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, Barbara Frederickson and Bethany Kok of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focused their attention on the vagus nerve.
Their article was titled: How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.They discovered that a high vagal tone index was part of a feedback loop between positive emotions, physical health and positive social connections.
Their research results suggests that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward spiral dynamic that scientists are just beginning to understand. Kok states that: “We propose here that people’s ability to translate their own positive emotions into positive social connections with others may hold one of the keys to solving this mystery.”
In the experiment Frederickson and Kok used a Loving-Kindness Meditation technique to help participants become better at self-generating positive emotions. However, they also found that simply reflecting on positive social connections and working to improve them also caused improvements in vagal tone.
Conclusion: The Vagus Nerve and Ferocious Equanimity
Equanimity is a core tenet of many ancient philosophies and religions. Equanimity is defined as “Mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Equanimity has its biological roots in the vagus nerve and is synonymous with grace under pressure.
Equanimity is not synonymous with passivity. As you strive to push yourself ever higher – and take on bigger challenges – do so with what I call “Ferocious Equanimity”. Use your vagus nerve to stay balanced and calm when the stakes are high. As you push against your limits remember that your vagus nerve is always there to keep you imperturbable and steady on the high-wire act of living your life to it’s fullest and maximizing your potential.
Hopefully the advice herein will give you some tools to utilize the incredible power of your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure the next time you need it.