Breathing is complicated, but it’s a good design. The intricacies that modern science continues to unveil affirm that simple statement. It mirrors what we find as we delve into the depths of breathing. The interaction of a myriad of interrelated systems manifests simply as – breath.
One of the more fascinating aspects of breath is its interaction with our nervous system to calm our natural response to stress. According to Deb Dana, our “emotions and respiration are linked, and slow, deep breathing can effectively inhibit distress (Dana, 2018).” Mankind has made use of this phenomenon for centuries through a variety of implementations of contemplative activity. Recent studies are beginning to piece together the common physiological factors. The most evident is breathing (Gerritsen & Band, 2018). In the modern era, we are finally able to observe some of the underlying reasons why and how our bodies work in the way they do. One of the more accessible explanations with regard to breathing is from the work of Stephen Porges and his development of Polyvagal Theory.
The polyvagal theory provides an important bridge from a correlative approach, that historically characterized psychophysiology, to a more integrative model, incorporating contemporary knowledge from neurophysiology and vertebrate phylogeny. (Porges, 2007)
The consumer market in the US has begun making use of some of the recent neurological discoveries and technological advancements. The term “wearables” has emerged as a term that refers to technology that is marketed to the general population. The technology provides physiological information to the wearer. Apple Watch and Garmin watches are two examples of wearables that use sensors to measure heart rate and breathing and to calculate helpful statistics like heart rate variability (HRV). It turns out that HRV is one of the most accessible measures that can be correlated to stress and a body’s response to stress (Stress Tracking | Health Science | Garmin Technology | Garmin, n.d.). The general population is increasingly able to have legitimate measures of stress and anxiety in real-time through their watch and smartphone.
Observing measured stress can be more than a mere expense or luxury. We can take a tool like that and observe the effect our interventions have on our bodies. And as we observe our technology we can also compare that to what we observe in our own bodily experience. Possibly the best practical intervention that is always accessible is breathing. “Breath is a direct, easily accessible, and rapid way to shape the state of the nervous system” (Dana, 2018, p. 143). Slow-Paced Breathing (SPB) has been shown to positively affect physical and mental health not only in the short-term but over the long-term as well (You et al., 2021).
SPB, diaphragmatic breathing, “belly breathing,” the list of terms and phrases is quite long. The exact method is not really that important. Just turning your attention to your breathing has a measurable effect even if there is no intention in modifying breathing (Gerritsen & Band, 2018).
Next time you feel stressed, try paying attention to your breathing. Do an internet search on “diaphragmatic breathing” and practice a new skill. There are some great resources available that don’t cost anything.
Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (First edition). W.W. Norton & Company.
Gerritsen, R. J. S., & Band, G. P. H. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 397. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological Psychology, 74(2), 116–143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009
Stress Tracking | Health Science | Garmin Technology | Garmin. (n.d.). Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.garmin.com/en-US/garmin-technology/health-science/stress-tracking/
You, M., Laborde, S., Zammit, N., Iskra, M., Borges, U., & Dosseville, F. (2021). Single Slow-Paced Breathing Session at Six Cycles per Minute: Investigation of Dose-Response Relationship on Cardiac Vagal Activity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(23), 12478. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182312478