How stress affects the brain and how breathing can help

Stress isn’t always a bad thing; it can be handy for a burst of extra energy and focus, like when you’re playing a competitive sport or have to speak in public. But when it’s continuous, it actually begins to change your brain.

There are ways to reset the HPA -Axis and in doing so we can dramatically improve our emotional health by starting to regulate our autonomic nervous system.

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) consists of the sympathetic nervous system (sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight system”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which returns us to a relaxed resting state. The PNS is under the control of the vagus nerve. Nerve fibers from the central nervous system go to the organs in the abdomen, thorax, throat area, and to the heart; and fibers from the organs go back into the central nervous system to convey what is going on internally. Nerve fibers send branches into the limbic system of the brain, which stimulate or inhibit the stress response. All these structures control internal perceptions, threats and affective states.

The most advanced part of the vagus nerve is the myelinated vagus, found only in mammals. The myelinated vagus enhances the calming PNS, which slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and repairs, restores, and promotes feelings of safety. The variability of the heart rate is a reflection of PNS activity and can be measured as an indication that the vagus nerve is firing, leading to a calming, resting, restorative state.

Often when we are stressed or anxious our breathing is shallow and fast, as is common in the stress response, hyperventilation occurs, which lowers carbon dioxide too much, leading to dizziness, unease and anxiety.

Conscious breathing involves the voluntary control of the breath, and is practiced widely in yoga and meditation, but is something that we all can do. Slow breathing appears to shift the autonomic nervous system from the fight or flight sympathetic to the calming parasympathetic state, and has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, and stress-induced psychological disorders. Examples of Yogic Breathing Techniques include:

Ujjayi Breathing or Ocean Breathing –  Used during yoga poses, inhaling and exhaling through the nose while creating a slight constriction in the throat.

Alternate Nostril Breathing – Exhaling then inhaling starting with the left side then exhaling and inhaling on the right.

Dirga Breathing –  Practicing Dirga Pranayama teaches you to breathe fully and completely. Ineffective breathing is a common problem in today’s modern world, compounded by poor posture and long periods of sitting or driving. When you breathe shallowly (called “chest breathing”), the air only enters your upper chest and very little enters your lower chest. This causes a lack of oxygen to your blood vessels, which can create strain on your heart and lungs.
Learning to breathe deeply will increase your oxygen supply, which, in turn, will help to decrease stress and anxiety levels. Additionally, focusing on your body during Three-Part Breath brings awareness to the present moment and calms your mind. According to studies, you can inhale and exhale up to seven times as much air (and oxygen and prana) during a three-part breath than in a shallow, chest-based breath. This deep breathing is the foundation for other yogic exercises, such as meditation and cleansing kriyas.
Three-Part Breath is often used at the very beginning of a yoga practice to settle in and prepare oneself for practice and meditation. This technique is particularly beneficial in everyday life because it requires no special sound or position to achieve a grounded and relaxed state of awareness.

Iceman Breathing –   A breathing technique I learned from “The Iceman” Wim Hof.  Inhaling and exhaling through the mouth like blowing up a balloon. The first part is a breathing exercise which can be likened to controlled hyperventilation. This is, of course, an oxymoron. Hyperventilation is something which happens involuntarily. But just imagine the breathing part, without any of stress triggers that normally cause this way of breathing. The image will consist of rapid breathing that makes one languid, invigorates one, makes one high on oxygen. One mechanism of this practice is the complete oxygenation of your blood and cells. This breathing technique is part of the “Wim Hof Method”.

There are several studies that show the medical benefits of Pranayama. One study showed improvement in pulmonary function tests in patients with asthma and emphysema after practising yoga and Pranayama for 45 min a day over the course of two months. Another study showed the benefits of Alternate Nostril Breathing in increasing parasympathetic tone by measuring heart rate variability and expiration-inhalation ratios. A pilot study with chemotherapy patients showed improvement in mood and sleep after Pranayama, and numerous other studies support the benefits of Pranayama in depression and anxiety.

If you are interested to learn more from me directly, you can contact me for a Skype consult or if you are in London come to attend one of my courses or workshops.



“How stress affecta the brain” Ted ed

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