This post has been reviewed by Giulia Di Patrizi, Clinical Pilates Instructor and Soft Tissue Therapist.
Giulia Di Patrizi is a clinical Pilates instructor, specialising in prenatal and postnatal rehabilitation and orthopaedic conditions pilates rehabilitation. She wants to help others understand and rediscover their bodies as we are in constant change and development. The foundation of her experience and training has led to a clear understanding of the importance of breathing to activate different parts of the nervous system and the connection with mental health.
Breathing is something we all do, but have you ever wondered about the mechanics of inhaling and exhaling? How deeply, and the rate at which we breathe has an impact on our nervous system. Let’s start with how the act of breathing is rooted in the autonomic nervous system.
What is the autonomic nervous system?
It can be said that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is like a vital cog in a big machine. A component of the peripheral nervous system, which regulates specific involuntary physiological processes such as blood pressure, respiration, heart rate, sexual arousal, and indigestion, the ANS
- Triggers chemical balancing for hormone level production
- Regulates heart rate
- Helps with menstrual cycle problems and digestion
- Can impact mental health
- Lowers stress levels
The autonomic nervouse system is made up of three distinct anatomical divisions, Two of these are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which work in tandem playing complementary roles, similar to the accelerator and brake pedals of a vehicle.
Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) = activates functions throughout the body for the commonly known fight or flight mode in stressful situations
Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) = also referred to as the rest and digest mode due to its functioning ability to conserve the body’s energy and engage the body to relax and increase digestion
What happens when the SNS is activated?
When the SNS is stimulated, the adrenal gland releases large quantities of epinephrine, triggering increased heart rate, pupil dilation and more. This creates an overall elevated state of activity and attention leading to the fight or flight response. This primal level response prepares the body to deal with a potential threat or challenge. As a result, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released which increases the heart rate and shuts down emotions. If this response is constantly active, it can have a detrimental effect, causing headaches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, muddled thinking and even weight gain.
The SNS is most active in the morning after waking up. During this process, blood pressure and heart rate increases, blood vessels expand, the body’s internal temperature increases and all bodily secretions such as the production of sweat (to cool down) and sebum are activated. The brain awakens, concentration increases, and muscle and joint movement becomes smooth allowing you to take flight i.e. to run if needed. The immune system is maximised, as the body is being oxygenated to aid in the repair and regeneration of cells at night.
How to activate your SNS
Ways in which you can activate your SNS are:
- Through shallow/chest breathing. Our body is designed to instinctively activate the SNS when we inhale through the nose but use mainly the chest. So, the diaphragm doesn’t expand that much, similar to a dog panting. However, this can cause dryness in the mouth so keep hydrated to avoid aggravating existing respiratory issues.
- It is also recommended after exercising to quickly consume antioxidants such as vitamin C. These help speed recovery and promote a healthy immune system by increasing muscle blood flow and oxygen consumption. 
Activation of the SNS in this way will help boost adrenalin levels and maximise the immune system.
What happens when the PNS is activated?
By contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is active, the heart rate and breathing slow down. The salivary glands and gastrointestinal glands become stimulated promoting digestion, and blood vessels expand. Bodily secretions such as sweat are inactive. concentration is distracted, and muscles and joints become sluggish as drowsiness kicks in. The body becomes calm and relaxed. Not surprisingly, the PNS is most commonly activated at night before you sleep.
How to activate your PNS?
Unlike the SNS, it can be difficult to activate the PNS. In order to do so, we must stimulate the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve is the most important nerve in the PNS and the longest in the body. It takes a meandering path (Vagus means ‘wandering’) from the brain to the chest and abdomen and is best stimulated by controlled deep diaphragmatic breathing. Think of it as mimicking sleep breathing patterns, in which you inhale less than you exhale. For instance:
Step 1: Inhale and count to 4
Step 2: Exhale and count to 6
Step 3: Repeat Steps 1 and 2 up to 10 breaths
This method allows the body to enter a state of calm, where the heart, circulatory and nervous system work in harmony to function almost perfectly. Apart from helping in moments of anxiety and stress, this state of being also improves quality of sleep, enabling the body to heal and recover in the deeper stages of the sleep cycle.
In “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” by journalist, James Nestor, you learn the revelatory account of how making minor adjustments to the way we breath can have a profoundly beneficial effect on our health and wellbeing. Using the mantra “Om mani padme hum” as a timer, you can inhale for 6 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds. The importance doesn’t only lie with how long you inhale and exhale, but how you do it. The nostrils are crucial to this from conducting the air directly to the lungs, hair that protects the lungs from bacteria, allowing the body to retain moisture.
Breathing and Autonomic Nervous System
Being able to take control of our autonomic nervous system benefits our heart rate, stimulates our immune system, increases brain function, and creates a balance between the mind and body. Having the ability to do all these, especially when confronted with difficult situations will help us to live a healthier, happier, and more relaxed life.
Breathing is the key. With the right technique we can manipulate our breath to control our autonomic nervous system. To aid your PNS activation, try our Restful Sleep Pillow Mist to nurture restorative sleep with its serene natural fragrance. Or why not try our Bath Oil blended with carefully selected essential oils to ease stress and relax both mind and body with its therapeutic benefits?
Inhale happiness, exhale excess thoughts.