Healing the Nervous System Through the Breath
“I Can’t Breathe”
These are the words feverishly and frantically expressed by countless individuals who have died from Covid-19.
“I Can’t Breathe”
Eric Garner, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain each uttered these words being killed as a result of police brutality. Now, these words are chanted around the world as hundreds of thousands march against systemic racism.
“I Can’t Breathe”
Air quality index spikes to hazardous levels across the West Coast of the United States forcing many to stay inside…it isn’t safe to breathe the air.
“To breathe is to live. Grief is often felt as a heavy weight in the chest. We cannot take for granted the health of our body, our sense of safety in the world, of the cleanliness of our air. These precious gifts are our birthright; yet, they need to be protected. To breathe fully in the midst of intense times is an act of courage.”Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Stress, Trauma, and your Breath
Our bodies reflect our relationship to stress. When under duress, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear which can lead you to breathe with quick, forceful inhalations into your upper chest. This breathing pattern prepares you to flee or fight off impending danger. There is wisdom in your body’s protective defense patterns—yet, you are not meant to live there long-term.
Ideally, we have an opportunity to reset, relax, and restore body and mind. This requires that we feel safe. Experiences of chronic stress or trauma (such as during the pandemic, as a result of systemic racism, or as a result of the ongoing impact of climate change seen in hurricanes, tornados, or wildfires) can lead us to feel keyed up in anxiety or panic for extended periods of time.
If you have experienced chronic stress of have complex PTSD, you might feel as though your resources are depleted. You might feel exhausted, depressed, and as if you cannot handle any more stress. In this case, your breathing might be shallow, your chest might feel collapsed. You may feel as though you cannot take a deep breath. This suggests that you might be relying heavily upon a defensive expression of your parasympathetic nervous system—one that conserves energy for the sake of survival.
In either case, I invite you to remember that your body is trying its very best to protect you. However, it is common to remain in defensive breath patterns when; in actuality, you will benefit from relaxing and resting. You can reclaim a sense of safety by focusing on conscious breathing which will help you orient to a here-and-now sense of ease in your body and mind.
The Grieving Body
In Traditional Chinese medicine, the season of autumn is associated with the lungs and the emotions of sadness and grief. There is a lot happening on the planet right now—covid-19, ongoing acts of violence due to centuries long systemic racism, the evidence of climate change. We are so deeply interconnected with each other and the earth. If you are feeling grief, you are not alone.
In the Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook, I write this passage about grief:
“Grief is profoundly raw and, at its core, a form of social communication. Consciously making space for grief is essential if we are to heal our collective wounds. When attending to each other’s grief, it is important to remember that grief needs presence. Nothing more. It is not necessary to say the “right” thing because there is no “right” thing to say. It is not necessary to have the answer because sometimes there are no answers. It is important to simply let each other know that we are there and that we are not afraid. Sometimes this involves being there and sitting in silence, breathing, or offering a nod of reassurance. Overall, being with someone in grief is about holding an outer container so that the person in grief can go on the inward journey needed during this vulnerable time. Some days you might be receiving support, and other days you might be giving support to another. However, so long as we all play our part in this exchange, we can facilitate an interconnected web of community.”
Rollo May, author of the book, The Courage to Create, wrote that the creative act often arises out of our struggles. It takes great courage to stay engaged and open-hearted share in the midst of our pain. It is an act of valor to bring our gifts with the world in the midst of despair. It takes bravery to live in a world that has betrayed you…and that could betray you again.
A few weeks ago, in the midst of a heavy moment of my own grief, I wrote this poem. Perhaps it will speak to you…
Breathing for your Vagus Nerve
You can restore healthy energy to the lungs. This is referred to as Qi in Chinese medicine and Prana in the yogic tradition. When healthy energy is restored to the lungs, we tend to think more clearly which supports our communications and actions in the world. The vagus nerve plays an important role in this link between our lungs and our wellbeing.
The Polyvagal theory, as developed by Stephen Porges, identifies that the most recently evolved part of our vagus nerve can be thought of as our social engagement system. It is that part of the nervous system that unites body and mind allowing us to feel connected to others and loving towards ourselves. When optimized, the social engagement system, helps us to be engaged in life in an empathic, open-hearted, and kind manner.
The breath plays a key role in our health because the vagus nerve extends into the smooth muscle of the lungs and heart. Recall that the sympathetic nervous system is associated with quick, intense breaths into the upper lungs…a condition often referred to as over-breathing or hyperventilation. In contrast, a long, slow exhalation initiates a vagus nerve response which sends communications to the medulla oblongata in the brainstem to inhibit over-breathing. This process initiates the Hering-Breuer reflex in which slowing down respiratory frequency leads to an increase in carbon dioxide in the bloodstream—and the medulla resets the breath rate in response to the change in CO2. Ultimately, the Hering-Breuer reflex inhibits over-breathing and helps to restore a felt sense of safety.
So, if that sounds complicated, what gets more complicated is reading through the research about which breath practice best facilitates this outcome! Some of the research focuses on the value of deep, audible belly breathing. Some pranayama (conscious breathing) techniques focus on breathing rapidly in and out of the nose such as a “breath of fire” with extended holds (retention of the breath) at the top of a strong inhalation. Buteyko breathing emphasizes a light, barely perceptible inhalation and exhalation in and out of the nose and holding the breath out. Wim Hoff breathing focuses on a bellows breath in and out of the mouth resolving into a long (up to several minutes) holding of the breath out followed by holding the breath in at the top of an inhalation.
How to Breathe
So, after many years of being an experienced yoga and pranayama practitioner and teacher I have an important conclusion…(drum roll please)…there is no single right way to breathe.
We have different states of our nervous system. Each helps us to manage different situations. We are meant to cultivate nervous system flexibility which means that we can tolerate a range of different arousal states without becoming stuck in hyper- or hypo-arousal states. There are many, many different breathing patterns taught in pranayama. Each serves us in different ways and we can draw upon different strategies of breathing at different times to facilitate our wellbeing. Some are energizing, some facilitate relaxation, some are cleansing, and some create a balanced mind and body.
Most importantly, you need to know your body and your signals of nervous system health. This requires that you build a conscious relationship to the many ways that your body communicates with you throughout the day. You can learn to listen to your body’s signals that indicate that you need food, water, movement, touch, and rest. As you experiment with breathing practices, you also learn to listen to your body’s feedback about which breath practices serve your goals at any given moment. “Breathing and the Vagus Nerve” means that you listen and connect to your truth…the wisdom inherent in your body!
Want to Learn More?
I really love writing and teaching about the breath. Perhaps you’ll consider a deep dive as I offer an applied polyvagal theory in yoga event starting in October. And, if you’d like, please join me this weekend as I offer a free hour long talk on breathing for nervous system health.
Here is where you can learn about these events:
- Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga Event Begins October 3, 2020
- Breathing for Nervous system Health September 20, 2020
Breathing into Grace
I’ll close with a few final words, a prayer that accompanies me during my evening walks. May these words invite you to experience a gentle breath and a moment of grace:
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts. Dr. Schwartz is the author of four books:
- The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Althea press, 2016)
- EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to Enhance Embodiment in Trauma Treatment (Norton, 2018).
- The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience, and Awaken your Potential (Pesi Publications, 2020)
- A Practical Guide to Complex PTSD: Compassionate Strategies for Childhood Trauma (Rockridge Press, 2020)