Under normal circumstances, we tend to have a slow and shallow breathing rate that averages 12 to 20 breaths per minute. When exercising, it can increase to 40-50 breaths per minute, but when sitting in a relaxed state, the rate is generally around 10-12 breaths per minute. During panic attacks, our heart rate increases as does our rate of breathing. This is a normal function of the fight or flight response and is designed to last just a few minutes for you to flee to safety. After a period of stress, or even exercise, we often take a long deep breath or a sigh of relief. That deep breath is a signal that we have reached safety and are now no longer under threat of harm, and our bodies switch from sympathetic nervous system dominance to the relaxed parasympathetic state.
The Vagus nerve is the main parasympathetic nerve. It innervates the mouth, larynx, pharynx, heart, lungs, and digestive tract as a consequence affects digestion, the immune response and has control over your mood. It influences the monoaminergic pathways, including serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline and histamine. It provides the brain with vital information about the state of your internal organs.
We can use our knowledge of breathing to hack the Vagus nerve and activate our parasympathetic nervous system. The key to breathing for relaxation is to breathe from the belly to draw down the diaphragm and increase the volume of air that you bring into the lungs. Ensure that your shoulders do not lift as you breath, instead, ensure that your belly moves forward. It is best to do this while sitting with your back straight. Place one hand on your stomach and notice that it moves during this exercise. Breathe in slowly through the nose to the count of 4, hold your breath for the count of 4 then slowly exhale through the mouth to the count of 8. As you might have guessed, the emphasis is on the out-breath. Repeat these steps 5 or 6 times, and do this several times throughout the day. You can do this when you feel anxiety bubbling up. This is a handy technique and helps to oxygenate the brain and relieve stress.
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