The Science Behind Calm Breathing – A Quick Guide To Our Nervous Systems

By Dr Lauren Moulds

When a baby is born, everyone in the room waits in anticipation for that first breath – the first sign of being alive on “the outside”. It’s something that is so innate, so unconscious, so vital – breathing.

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 kids (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 Autonomic Nervous System

You may have heard the terms fight, flight, freeze before – but have you heard of rest and digest? These are nicknames that are commonly used to refer to two central functions of our nervous system.

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.

Our nervous system has two main systems – the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. These are the two in charge. The autonomic nervous system is where psychology mostly likes to focus, and it too has two main parts – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. We know this could be taking you back to biology class but stick with us here.

These two systems are always active and their job is to find an important balance between reacting to the world and finding a sense of stability in our bodies. Let’s explore this in a little more depth.

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.

To get a bit more technical – when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the adrenal gland releases stress hormones into the bloodstream. These activate the muscles and glands necessary for quick responses in the body, causing them to tense up and be ready for action. As this takes a lot of energy, it simultaneously “shuts down” or reduces the blood given to functions considered less immediately essential (for example, the immune system or digestive system).

The sympathetic nervous system is incredibly fast acting, as our body is geared to survive.

Your body goes through a number of significant changes when the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

  • 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
  • Your pupils constrict – meaning we experience “tunnel vision”
  • Digestion changes – we often experience ‘butterflies’, loose bowls and stomach cramps
  • More glycogen is converted to glucose to give us energy
  • Immune system responses decrease
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