Our breath is our life force and it’s not just important for our survival, but also for our mental health. How so? Our breath actually has an impact on our emotions, due to its connection to the vagus nerve, which is the carrier of information for our parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body that connects our brain to multiple organs and it can impact our blood pressure, digestive track, heart rate, and also our emotional state.
The gut-mind connection is super important here, because if we are stressed and in “fight or flight”, we cannot shift into our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response when the body is relaxed. Ergo, our vagus nerve plays an important role in regulating digestion. Sluggish digestion has an immediate impact on the entire body including our brain health, quality of sleep, and emotional health. In other words, our body as a whole is not operating in an optimal state. The vagus nerve also has a large impact on how we act in social situations. The PNS is scanning to see if we are safe or not. If it senses unsafety, we will react differently to others, even those we are close to. This is because you are perceiving more stimuli as a threat more so than you would when relaxed.
One of the best ways to strengthen and tone the vagus nerve is with breathwork. By practicing slow, deep breathing techniques, we are allowing our brain and body to spend more time in a relaxed state. And when we’re relaxed, our vagal tone will naturally be higher, whereas when we are stressed, our vagus nerve shuts down. Controlling our breath is a preventative medicine.
With regular practice of slow and controlled breathing we can manage stress better, which not only lowers our cortisol, but also signals to the vagus nerve to let us “rest and digest”. While performing breathwork is a good idea at any time of day, it is extremely beneficial to practice before bed and after waking up. This is because our body is in a detoxification state, and it’s working to break down everything we ate the prior day. But to have proper digestion and proper deep sleep, our body needs to be in a relaxed state, and breathwork is a tool proven to help us relax.
A technique called box breathing is when you inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold again for four counts, then repeat. Here, the breath retention is key, and helps to stimulate the vagus nerve. One breathing tip is to put your hands gently over the stomach. Then inhale through the nose, hold, then exhale deeply and audibly through the mouth. Focus your attention on both the breath and how your gut feels.
In addition to these techniques, it’s important to practice mindful breathing. This is done by becoming more aware of your breath, and having multiple breath check ins per day to see if your breath is controlled and if not, see if it’s due to any stress or anxiety. Moreover when we are stressed or in “fight or flight”, it’s important to primarily check in with the breath, and alter it with slow and controlled breathing for at least a few minutes.