“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Take a breather,” or “Slow down and take a deep breath” are common things we say when someone is in an acute state of anger, fear, frustration, or anxiety. In fact, there is solid physiological science behind this advice. According to Katie Brindle, author of Yang Sheng: The Chinese Art of Self Healing, “Deep breathing relaxes the body because it stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the neck to the abdomen and is in charge of turning off the ‘fight or flight’ reflex.” Yang energy stimulated by this sympathetic stress response of the nervous system while yin energy is regulated by the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic reflex stimulates hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, which correspond to Kidney Yang in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). These are activated to allow us to operate on an “as needed” basis in times of stress. This includes not only high stress, but the various minor stresses involved with all psycho-physiological processes needed to keep our lifeboat afloat. In other words, we need stimulating hormones but not too much.
When stress occurs, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain signal the adrenal gland (together called the HPA axis) to release cortisol. Cortisol, sometimes called — or miscalled in some cases — the “stress hormone,” initially functions as an ‘anti-stress (Kidney Yin) hormone needed to maintain normal mind-body functions including:
- appropriate use of carbohydrates, fats and proteins
- keep inflammation down
- regulate blood pressure
- increase blood sugar (glucose)
- control the sleep-wake cycle
- maintain a sense of calm wakefulness
- boost energy so we can handle stress and restore balance afterward.
After stress has passed cortisol is much less needed and the body-mind returns to normal.
What happens under constant stress? The alarm button stays on and the resulting excess cortisol floods our system upsetting the vital body-mind functions. This leads to a plethora of health problems including:
- anxiety and depression
- heart disease
- memory and concentration problems
- digestion problems
- weight gain
The Vagus Nerve and Breath
Deep breathing provides the most direct and immediate effect to counteract the effects of stress including relieving all the many conditions it causes, including those mentioned above, and to our point, insomnia and anxiety. It does this by activating the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body which extends from the bottom of the large intestine to the brain. In yoga, it has correspondences with what are called the most important nadis, the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna (yogic nerve centers) involved in restoring a calm and meditative state. The science of yoga is in fact largely how to regulate our mind-body energy through these nerve centers.
The vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body, is actually a pair of nerves located at the base of the spine that travel up the spine, enervating the various physio-spiritual centers (chakras) throughout the body. Activating the free flow of qi, biological nervous energy, is a major factor in health. Ironically the similarity between the depictions of the vagus nerve, Kundalini and the caduceus, the symbol of medicine is striking.
Many in the West only associate yoga with the postures or asanas which help to maintain flexibility. In fact, yoga is much more and involves the regulation of the breath. The names used to describe energy in both TCM and yoga are qi and prana respectively; both also called referred to as air or breath. In acupuncture, two of the most powerful meridians are the Governing and Urinary Bladder meridians which travel along the spine with acupoints to every organ and part of the body. In my practice, I have found these meridians to be the most effective for treatment.
It is a common error that people separate mind and body, when in fact there are correspondences between the function of each organ in the body and corresponding mental states. I’m not sure where I first heard a customary greeting in some country being “How is your liver today?” The liver is an organ whose associated malfunction can be anger, depression, frustration and anxiety.
Many foods, activities and herbs can activate and nourish the vagus nerve. This includes activities such as meditation, singing, rest, love-making, pleasant climate, pleasant smells (aromatherapy), soothing massage and of course slow deep breathing.
Yin tonic herbs that are sweet and moist such as Chinese asparagus root (tian men dong) in TCM and shatavari in Ayurveda are both a species of wild asparagus root and that are sweet and moist nourishing yin tonics. The famous TCM formula Rehmannia Six Combination (Liu Wei Di Huang), containing prepared rehmannia root, Chinese dioscorea, dogwood berries, poria cocos mushroom, water plantain root, and tree peony root is used to restore yin essence (and therefore vagus nerve function which promotes calm) especially for men and women over the age of 50. Aging is associated with diminished yin energy, which is why aged people tend to develop dry skin, wrinkles and perhaps become a little more grumpy.
But, the most immediate way to activate the vagus nerve is by breathing.
Two of the most effective methods for activating the vagus nerve for treating anxiety and insomnia
It may seem strange that one needs to ‘activate’ a nerve to achieve calm but this is based on the notion that any impairment or blockage of a normal process will cause stress while a resumption or activation will relieve it. I’ve met many people, including military personnel, who claim to know a trick that will allow them to fall asleep and stay asleep anytime, even under high stress situations. Wouldn’t you like to know such a trick? This webpage lists nine of them. The fact that these are breathing techniques means that each of them in some way affects the vagus nerve, because without an activated vagus nerve, sleep would be impossible. While they all are good, the ones that I’ve found to be the most effective is deep diaphragmatic breathing which is the most basic, and the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
This can be done nearly anytime throughout the day, when it may be time to “take a breather” and counteract a stressful situation or anxiety, or to clear your mind before meditation. They can be done while sitting up or lying down in bed. For sleep, it is best to lie on your right side to enable your left nostril, which corresponds to your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, to be activated.
Ideally everyone should learn the full diaphragmatic breath. I possible begin all meditation and breathing practices with this breath.
There are various forms of diaphragmatic breathing. Basic diaphragmatic breathing is the simplest form. To perform basic diaphragmatic breathing, follow the instructions below (taken from Medical News Today):
- Lie down on a flat surface with a pillow under the head and pillows beneath the knees. Pillows will help keep the body in a comfortable position.
- Place one hand on the middle of the upper chest.
- Place the other hand on the stomach, just beneath the rib cage but above the diaphragm.
- To inhale, slowly breathe in through the nose, drawing the breath down toward the stomach. The stomach should push upward against the hand, while the chest remains still.
- To exhale, tighten the abdominal muscles and let the stomach fall downward while exhaling through pursed lips. Again, the chest should remain still.
4-7-8 breathing technique
The 4-7-8 breathing technique was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil as a variation of pranayama, an ancient yogic technique that helps people relax as it replenishes oxygen in the body.
Here’s how to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique:
- Allow your lips to gently part.
- Exhale completely, making a breathy whooshsound as you do.
- Press your lips together as you silently inhale a deep diaphragmatic breath through the nose for a count of 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale again for a full 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound throughout, the exhaled breath being longer than the inhaled
- Repeat 4 times when you first start. Eventually work up to 8 repetitions.
My colleague, Roy Upton, mentioned that medical doctor and herbalist Dr. Tieraona Low Dog told him, “A survey was conducted of a cohort of the functional medicine docs that went through Dr. Andrew Weil’s integrative medicine fellowship. The overwhelming majority said the most clinically beneficial technique they were taught that benefitted their patients was Weil’s breathing technique for anxiety, depression, lowering blood pressure, helping to sleep, etc.”
After learning this technique, it can be done anytime and anywhere as needed. Anytime you are feeling anxiety, depressed or stressed, try the 4-7-8 breathing method. So there you have it, feeling better is actually only a few breaths away. The only thing you need to do is do it!