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​How to breathe yourself calm

Posted by Dr Libby Weaver on

It is absolutely remarkable that a part of our nervous system – known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – exists to allow us to feel calm and peaceful.

Along with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), it's one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Whereas the SNS is in charge of the fight-or-flight response, our PNS helps us to rest, restore, have great digestion and it plays a major role in fertility.

You cannot access the ANS with your conscious-thinking, instructional mind. In other words, you cannot boss your PNS into activation!

The only way you can influence it is by how you breathe. When you take short, sharp shallow breaths, your SNS is activated, whereas when you breathe diaphragmatically – moving your tummy in and out with each breath – you communicate to every cell in your body that you are safe, as you would never be able to breathe in this way if your life truly was in danger.

You can activate the PNS yourself via your breath, and this immediately results in a reduction of stress hormone levels as well as blood pressure. PNS activation also strengthens the immune system and increases feelings of happiness.

Activating the PNS means you are more likely to act from a place of calm – which is particularly critical when your outer world is driven by forces that are beyond your influence, from traffic jams to challenges at work or at home.

Have you ever noticed that when you go on holiday, it can take you anywhere from between one to three days to relax? Not to mention by day two you start worrying because you know you are using your precious holiday time to wind down. That can be partly due to your body shifting from SNS dominance to PNS activation. True restoration and relaxation can only occur once this switch occurs.

Here are a few ways to allow your PNS to become active:

Slow down your breath

Inhale for 10 counts, hold for 10 counts and exhale for 10 counts. This three-point breath will relax the body and mind almost instantly. When you do this frequently it is a great way to centre yourself again. Practise this in a comfortable position for between 5-10 minutes. You can extend the count of exhalations to 15 the more you practise.

Progressive relaxation

First, you systematically tense particular muscle groups in your body, for example your neck and shoulders. Next, you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them. Move over the body consciously relaxing different muscle groups. Relaxed muscles are a signal to your nervous system that you are safe and not preparing to sprint away from danger. This is a particularly lovely activity to do before bed.

Meditation and/or yoga

Meditating even for a short time every day is one of the most powerful ways to activate your PNS. If you're a beginner try a guided meditation with relaxing music or head along to some classes to help you find the right style for you – the benefits extend way beyond stress reduction. Yoga practices are breath-focused and are a wonderful way to become more breath-aware as well as activate the PNS.

Put your legs up the wall

A great way help you breathe diaphragmatically is to lay on your back with your legs up the wall. Lie in this position for 5-10 minutes and focus on your breath. Place a folded towel under your back or bottom for support if you like.