Two vital processes take place that we barely think about: breathing and heartbeat. For the longest time, medical science kept the two apart. During a routine physical a doctor checked on signs that the heart and lungs sounded healthy through his stethoscope, but that was the sum of it unless something went wrong.
Yet there was a hidden connection that was only recently discovered, and it turns out to be quite important. The kind of irregular, ragged breathing that occurs in stressful situations is directly connected to the rapid, staccato heartbeat that is also typical of stress. If you have one, you are very likely to have the other.
This matters a lot if you want to protect yourself from stress, especially the chronic, low-level stress that is common in modern life. Just below your level of awareness, your heart, and indeed your whole body, is reacting to pressures at work, excessive noise, lack of good sleep, and too little time for relaxation. Because mind and body work as one, low-level stress can lead to physical and psychological symptoms over time, opening the way for lifestyle disorders if the situation isn’t reversed.
This is where a breakthrough in self-care took place in the last decade. It is known as vagal breathing, named after the vagus nerve, one of the ten major nerves running from the brain to the rest of the body. The vagus nerve is a wanderer, making its way to many parts of the thorax, including the heart, lungs, and digestive system. The functions it controls stay beneath your normal awareness because that’s the nature of the involuntary nervous system, to keep things going while you put your mind elsewhere.
Yet the body isn’t robotic, and as everyone knows, you can voluntarily take over your breath anytime you want. But it wasn’t common knowledge that you can use breath to affect the heart. Only in the East, particularly in yoga practice, was the vital connection between breathing and the whole body an important insight.
The West is still just catching up, but thanks to the vagus nerve, you can breathe your way to a normalized heartbeat. In other words, you are using your breath to tell your heart that everything is relaxed and unstressed.
The method is quite simple: the key is to exhale more slowly than you inhale.
Sit upright with your attention on your lower ribs and belly.
Comfortably inhale until your belly feels full.
Hold for a count of four.
Slowly exhale until your belly feels empty and relaxed.
Repeat for 5 minutes, making sure that you breathe comfortably without forcing.
(In a simple variant, you can breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth.)
This is actually a mind-body exercise, because vagal breathing stimulates the brain’s relaxation response, affecting how you think, feel, and perceive the world. The element of mindfulness enters by noticing when you feel stressed during the day and immediately taking a short time out to practice vagal breathing. The immediate effect on your heart is to take it out of a stressed drumbeat rhythm into a more flexible, varied rhythm, which is the sign of a healthy heartbeat.
In medical terminology, you are restoring heart rate variability (HRV), which turns out to be one of the most important ways to care for your personal well-being. It is becoming clear that everyone concerned with self-care should pay attention to vagal breathing as part of their normal daily routine.
As a remedy for a chronic stress response, vagal breathing retrains your nervous system to recognize what is normal. In these stressful times everyone’s nervous system bears an extra burden of overload, but rest assured, the mind-body system always wants to return to a balanced state in all situations. There’s much more to say about stress, but this is a good start for everyone, no matter what your stress level happens to be right now.
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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.