The Science Behind Calm Breathing: A Quick Guide to our Nervous Systems
Breathing. It’s something that is so innate, so unconscious, so vital.
But did you know that it is also the key to help ground your child, help performance, help anxiety, help connection and help resilience?
So, while breathing is compulsory and automatic, when we turn it into a conscious, thoughtful and purposeful activity we quickly learn it’s our inbuilt superpower. Calm breathing empowers our children (and ourselves, actually) to be able to access an internal physical and psychological regulator that can act as a circuit breaker; a battery charger; a time out and a pep talk.
The sympathetic nervous system (The Fight, Flight, Freeze Response)
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight, flight, freeze response – our automatic response to actual or perceived threat. Its job is to prepare our body to get ready for physical challenge (“fight”), to retreat (“flight”) or to freeze. It is built to be quick and short term – to survive a threat, not considering our long-term wellbeing. The sympathetic nervous system is incredibly fast acting, as our body is geared to survive.
Our bodies go through a number of significant changes when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. For example:
Muscles become activated and tense
The frontal lobe (in charge of cognitive functions such as concentration, attention, problem solving, reasoning, rationalisation, forward planning etc.) shuts down
Heart rate increases
Breathing changes to ‘short’ (into the lungs not tummy) and fast
Pupils constrict – meaning we experience “tunnel vision”
Digestion changes – we often experience ‘butterflies’, loose bowels and stomach cramps
More glycogen is converted to glucose to give us energy
Immune system responses decrease
Unfortunately, these days, due to increased technology, stressors and expectations on us and our children, we all spend a lot of time with our sympathetic nervous systems activated. We are constantly connected, switched on, and conscious of perceived or actual social, emotional and psychological threats. We’re heightened.
Children have vastly increased screen time, increased testing at school, social media and high intensity video games. This can push them into an overly or chronic sympathetic state (sympathetic nervous systems switched on), which isn’t great for our mental or physical health. We see increases in chronic illness, lower immune systems, poor sleep, fatigue, poor performance and poor mental health.
The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest)
If the sympathetic nervous system is all about fast reaction, our parasympathetic nervous system is the antidote – the long-term planner. The parasympathetic nervous system helps produce a state of equilibrium in the body. It is this system that restores the body’s sense of calm, allowing it to relax, repair and restore. This is why it’s so important to strengthen this system in our children, to embed resilience and coping abilities.
When this system is activated, we see:
Improved circulation and even distribution of energy amongst the brain and body systems
Frontal lobe functions improved, such as rational thinking, creative thinking, improved attention, focus and improved empathy
Slower, calmer breathing
Dilated pupils – so we can literally see the “whole picture”
This system is geared towards long term health and wellbeing with improved immune response, better digestion and sleep, energy conversation and maintaining a healthier balance in your body.
How do we activate our parasympathetic nervous system?
While the parasympathetic nervous system is also automatic in activation, at times it needs a little more help to turn on. This is mostly due to the overactive nature of our sympathetic nervous system in the world we live in.
Every adult and child are different in regard to what activates “rest and digest” for them. For some children, this may be reading a book, playing playdough or doing craft, for others it may be going for a walk or doing some yoga – something more physical in their body.
What we do know is that, for most people, engaging in calm breathing will activate our parasympathetic nervous system, via our vagus nerve. It tells our heart to slow down, conserve energy and reduces the release of cortisol (our stress hormone). This sends that vital signal to the brain that it is calm, safe and no longer under threat.
Words: Dr Lauren Moulds
Lauren is the Principal Psychologist at Big Little Steps Psychology for Brave & Able. Visit braveandable.com.au for more information about their breathing buddies
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Spring 2022