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Yoga and the Breath: Antidotes for A Stressful Life
Stress is unavoidable. Although we often equate stress as negative and undesirable, the pressures that we encounter as we tackle life’s challenges and face our edge are often the impetus for growth and change. But too much stress can leave our nervous system out of balance and our body depleted. Luckily, the breath techniques of yoga provide the key to unlocking this vicious cycle and restoring tranquility.
The extent to which we experience pressure packed situations as stressful often depends on how our minds and bodies respond to the situation. The mind part of the equation may seem intuitive. If you perceive an event to be stressful you will likely experience it as such.
But the mind influences the body and vice versa, in large part via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). In understanding and harnessing the power of the ANS, we can gain mastery over stress. Yogic breathing practices (pranayama) can help.
Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is composed of two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is like the body’s gas pedal. When it is activated heart rate and respiration increase, and the body is primed for action. The SNS instantaneously bursts into action the moment that you perceive danger.
The SNS is involved in an intricate dance with the limbic system – the region of the brain that is primarily responsible for emotion and the instantaneous response to danger. The limbic system includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, and other vital structures.
In instances of imminent risk the limbic system signals to the SNS to fight, avoid or evade threat. In response the SNS kicks into high gear, releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline to increase heart rate and respiration, and to prepare you for action.
If you’ve ever had a near miss while driving your car you know exactly how this feels. Chances are you slammed on your brakes and possibly turned the steering wheel before you even registered a threat. At that point your heart is racing, your breathing is ragged, and you may even have sweat running down your back. In an instant your body feels as though it has run a 100-meter dash.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the body’s break pedal. It is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. When activated, the PNS releases acetylcholine and other neurotransmitters that signal the heart and respiratory system to slow down, and the skeletal muscles to relax.
The ANS and limbic system operate in a continuous feedback loop, each informing the other of what the body needs. But these systems do not work in isolation – they are strongly influenced by the brain’s executive function.
Executive Function: The Mental Saboteur
Executive function is an overarching term used to describe the cognitive or mental processes that the brain uses to organize and manage input. These processes include organizing information, planning, attention, memory, problem solving, verbal reasoning, task switching, and other mental operations.
Executive function occurs primarily in the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes of the brain. Structures in the executive function and limbic systems are highly interconnected, with each sending millions of signals back and forth in response to the constant bombardment of stimuli and information that we receive on an ongoing basis.
What is remarkable about the executive functioning system is that it can literally sabotage our nervous system. It can generate thoughts and memories that evoke feelings of fear, terror, and anxiety all on its own. The autonomic nervous system cannot discriminate between what is “real” and what is imagined. It responds to self-created, mental events just as if they were real, initiating a cascade of signals that trigger the fight, flight or freeze response. This means that we can trick our nervous system into believing that we are experiencing a traumatic event just by thinking about it.
If you imagine something that you’re afraid of long enough, chances are you will notice that your heart and breathing rate have increased, and you will feel uncomfortable physical sensations. Those with high levels of anxiety or panic repeat these fearful scenarios over and over again, signaling to their brains and bodies that threat is continuous. The result is physical and mental exhaustion.
How Yoga Can Help
Fortunately, a number of yogic breathing practices (pranayama) can quell a hypervigilant nervous system.
In a landmark article published in 2010 in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a group of researchers from Boston reported that yoga practice may help to reduce anxiety, and improve mood. In a subsequent study published in 2012 in Medical Hypotheses, this team also found that yoga may be effective in treating stress-related conditions such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease.
In a recent interview in Psychology Today, Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, and the study's lead author noted, "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."
Using the Power of Yoga to Relieve Stress
The breath is an indicator of physical and emotional duress. Under stress, respiration becomes rapid, shallow and isolated in the upper chest. Shallow or rapid breathing reaffirms to the ANS that the body is in danger, leading to SNS activation (fight, flight or freeze). Conversely, slow, deep, diaphragmatic breath tells the ANS that the system is safe to relax and repair, leading to PNS activation (rest and digest).
We can elicit parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation by deepening and slowing down the breath. First find a relaxed position and focus on inhaling as slowly and deeply as you are able.
Once you can do that comfortably, begin to focus on exhaling as slowly as you can. This can be done incrementally, with each exhale becoming a little bit longer than the last. This may not be easy at first, but over time and with practice you will discover that breathing slowly and deeply, and lengthening the exhale become easier and more comfortable.
There are a number of excellent resources that offer breathing exercises and examples. The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions by Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg is an excellent resource for beginners.
Breathing exercises are an excellent and effective antidote for stress, not to mention that they are free, and accessible to you at any time. It’s worth the investment to learn how to take stress into your own hands, and to master it. Your health depends on it.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success - Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity and scientific integrity, and promote effective leadership, decision-making and social change. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com.