Did you know that the average person takes between 17,000 and 30,000 breaths a day? Breathing is the first thing we do when we are born, and last thing we do before we die. We are breathing all day and all night, and most of the time we are completely unaware of the process. The respiratory system is the only major body system that we have conscious control over, though it also functions on its own without our input. It really is amazing if you consider how many components of your brain and body have to work together to make breathing possible. Here’s how it works: Your nervous system sends a signal to your diaphragm to contract downward, which creates a vacuum in the lungs, forcing air to rush in. Oxygen then transfers into your bloodstream via tiny air sacs in the lower portion of the lungs, and circulates to your heart, which pumps the oxygenated blood to your other organs and brain. As the cells use the oxygen, carbon dioxide is produced and absorbed back into the bloodstream, eventually returning to the lungs. A different part of your nervous system then signals the diaphragm to relax back upward on the exhale, which pushes the air (and carbon dioxide) out of the lungs. All of that happens in about 3-5 seconds, and this process repeats over and over again.
Since the respiratory system is directly tied to the nervous system, how we breathe impacts our stress level. For example, when we feel anxious we often breathe shallowly or hold our breath, which creates low levels of oxygen in the blood. The brain then reacts to lack of oxygen and perpetuates the anxiety which then leads to more shallow breathing and more holding of the breath. It’s easy to get stuck in a nervous system/respiratory system stress loop when we aren’t aware of our breathing. Fortunately, being mindful of how we are breathing is a skill we can learn and practice, and the benefits of a calm nervous system are many. When we are relaxed, we feel more open emotionally, we can think more clearly, and are kinder to ourselves and others, we have more energy, our bodies move more freely, and all of our bodily systems work more effectively (circulatory system, endocrine system, digestive system, cardiovascular system). There are many specific breathing techniques designed to calm the nervous system. Some are 5,000 years old passed down through yogis in ancient India, and others are more modern. Regardless, there is a science behind breathing techniques and it’s worth taking the time and making the effort to learn a few of them. Check back for another blog soon and try it for yourself!