And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Humans adapt based on the pressures put upon us, so without stress we wouldn’t develop and grow. This feature of our evolution, however, becomes maladaptive as soon as the acute stressors we require become chronic strain on our body and mind. And yet this incessant stress is what the modern world can so easily set us up for.
The act of returning to baseline after we’re knocked off course helps us to strengthen the very ability to make this rebound, but to achieve this we require a state of recovery ― often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ (parasympathetic) nervous system. In an environment of chronic stress, we get stuck in the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response (technically known as the sympathetic nervous system). Here, our body remains vigilant towards perceived threat, shuttling resources away from our reparative systems and towards mobilising energy to help us deal with the situation at hand. So while we may not necessarily be subjected to what we would see as threat, most of us are surrounded by artificial light, pollutants, work pressures, social pressures, technology, and negative world news at our finger tips. Some of us may feel ‘stressed’, but all of us are constantly under some sort of stress, whether we are aware of it or not.
We all have the power to take these stressors on the chin and return back to baseline stronger and more able than before. But disease begins when we neglect a vital aspect of the development equation, and instead of allowing ourselves to recover, we continue to push on the accelerator until the system starts to burn out.
To mitigate these stressors from the modern world, we have an incredible recovery tool at our disposal: our breath. The breath is our only way of voluntarily regulating the autonomic nervous system, and is therefore a powerful instrument we can use to change our state of being. We can’t directly tell our hearts to pump slower or our digestive systems to move smoothly, but we actually can indirectly affect these systems using the conscious control of our breathing.
Using specific breathing techniques, we can instantly initiate a cascade of physiological changes that take us from anxious, fearful or angry, into calm, content and receptive. It does this through a mechanism known as the ‘relaxation response’, in which we consciously switch the dominance of our nervous systems from sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) into parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’). Breathing has such a profound effect partly because of how it stimulates the vagus nerve ― a wide-reaching nerve that innervates many of our vital organs.
The vagus nerve runs through the entirety of the respiratory tract, including the throat, lungs and diaphragm. Slow breathing puts pressure on this nerve, which is thought to trigger a cascade of effects involving the brain, resulting in heightened parasympathetic activation and the release of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps to calm the system, inhibit the fear network, and promote cognitive functioning. And with better vagal tone, we might experience a quicker and smoother rebound after encountering a stressor, improved digestion, and sounder sleep.
A well-researched technique called coherence breath is a clear example of how we can voluntarily improve our HRV. The technique involves elongating each inhale and exhale to about 6 seconds each. It is so called because this coherence in the breath is reliably mirrored with coherence in the heart rate, thereby replicating the kind of activity we’d see measured in a state of love and gratitude, rather than stress and fear.
Key to this technique is the slowed pace of breathing, which works out to around 5-6 breaths per minute. There are stretch receptors in the lungs that are stimulated by the slow breath, sending feedback to the brain that the practitioner is well and calm. The result has been found to be further activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, improved mood and a sense of wellbeing. Slower breath also increases the overall volume of oxygen intake in a single breath, improving oxygen saturation in the blood. And interestingly enough, even though the inhale raises the heart rate, this feeds into a reflexive feedback mechanism that actually ends up reducing blood pressure in response.