How Breathwork Affects the Body

How do we understand the connection between controlling our breath and the powerful effects that is provides? A good place to start is with the autonomic nervous system, which regulates all the automatic functions of the body. It is also the main regulator in our stress-response system. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two counterbalancing parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the sympathetic system goes into action when we are under stress or enduring a challenge, or have to mobilize to get something we want or to avoid something harmful.

When the challenge or danger has passed, what is suppose to happen is that the sympathetic system quiets down, while its counterpart, the parasympathetic system, comes on-line and begins to counteract all the affects of the “fight-or-flight” response. For example, the sympathetic system speeds up our heart rate and respiration, and the parasympathetic slows them both down and triggers our natural “rest and digest, restore and repair” functions. The parasympathetic system restores energy and reserves and reduces inflammation.

But what happens all too often is that our sympathetic system stays highly active instead of returning to baseline, while our parasympathetic system is underactive, especially in people wo suffer chronic stress or trauma. That’s when we see people experience inappropriate overreactions and difficulty relaxing or calming down; they feel unsafe and stuck in a defensive mode. So, how can breathing help this imbalance?

How do breathwork practices work……The respiratory system has millions of receptors: chemical receptors, pressure receptors, and stretch receptors. With every breath in and our, microscopic stretch receptors fire in the walls of millions of alveoli (the air-filled sacs inside the lungs). Studies have shown that when we change our pattern of breathing, we change the interoceptive messages going from the respiratory system to the brain.

Where is all this information going, and what does it do inside the brain? This information reaches the brain centers that process and regulate our emotions, perceptions, judgements, thoughts, and behaviors. Studies have shown that the PNS system has significant affects on our abilities to trust, love, connect, bond, be intimate, communicate emotionally, and feel empathy. “Because breathing has such a strong impact on our thoughts and feelings, it provides a portal through which we can send messages through our own nervous systems to quiet our minds, reduce defensive overreactivity, and enable us to feel safe, close, loving, and loved.”

Based on these studies of people with severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including survivors of mass disasters, Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg teach a form of Conscious Breathing called “coherent breathing”: breathing gently and naturally through the nose at a rate of four and a half to six breaths per minute, using a chime tone to pace the breathing. Too this they add other techniques to strengthen and balance the SNS and PNS.

When we speed up or slow down our breathing, we activate the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. By controlling our breath, we can willfully influence the brain and the autonomic nervous system and literally change our mind-body state. By changing the pattern of our breathing, we change the pattern of the information being sent to the brain. In other words, how often, how fast, and how much you inflate your lungs directly affects the brain and how it operates. Breathing affects every organ, system, and function in the body.

Every physiological, psychological, and emotional state has a corresponding breathing pattern. When you change one, the other changes. Therefore, Conscious Breathing techniques have the potential to transform the quality of your life on every level and on a day-to-day basis.

When we are focused on a challenging task, when we have too much on our minds, when we are worried about the kids, school. Money, or our aging parents, we are functioning in the sympathetic zone. Our bodies are producing more free radicals, and we are not able to relax or to feel close and cuddly. We also tend to make snap judgements and be more reactive, and we are less flexible, relaxed and creative.

Conscious Breathing can balance and counteract all that. Breathwork can become a powerful and natural alternative or adjunct in dealing with post-traumatic stress, anxiety disorders, and many other conditions.