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Breathwork: Nervous System Regulation

When our bodies feel stressed, our brains are working to protect us, yet this can feel more like a shutdown with anxious thoughts and heart palpitations than assistance. Intense anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the body’s “fight or flight” repones to perceived danger. This method of reactions is intended to protect us, yet it is perceived as inconvenient.


Breathwork serves as a quick, daily exercise with many powerful benefits that can lead to improvements in physical and mental health. Breathwork refers to a variety of breathing techniques and exercises that can improve physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Practicing breathwork decreased levels of stress and anxiety, helping to complete stress cycles, regulate nervous system, and stop fight-or-flight responses following stressful situations. Intentional breathing exercises inform the nervous system that they are safe which result in the person feeling grounded and more regulated than before the exercise. Practicing deep breathing techniques when experiencing difficulty focusing can help increase attention span and awareness.


Breath exercises can increase energy levels, boosting your immune system, and greatly improve blood flow. Practicing breathwork exercises allows our bodies to bring in more oxygen, which fuels the cells that keeps our bodies healthy and organized, including your immune system greatly contributes to overall health. Deep breathing can also serve as a pain management technique, triggering the feeling of relaxation with stressful situations. Breathwork makes positive contributions to mood, which benefit to those experiencing chronic pain. Listed below are a few exercises to rest the nervous system and return to feeling calm and regulated. These exercises can be done in multiple environments and are intended to be used as needed. Next time you feel anxiety or stress reactions limiting your abilities, try these activities at work, at home, in the car, or on a walk.


1. A Mindful Sigh

You may want to participate in this exercise when you notice shallow breathing, tense muscles, or increased heart rate. This exercise stimulates the vague nerve, which controls your heart rate. This exercise will trigger relaxation in the body. Position your body in a comfortable spot. Take a deep, long inhale through your nose for five seconds and hold. Take another quick inhale for one second and hold for three seconds. Sigh a slow, long exhale though your mouth while making a “voo” noise, which will vibrate your diaphragm. Repeat this cycle three times.


2. The Half-Salamander

You may want to participate in this exercise if you feel an increased heart rate or if your muscles feel tense. Start by sitting or standing in a comfortable position with your head facing forward. Shift your eyes to the right without turning your head. Tilt your head towards your right shoulder and hold for 30 to 60 seconds, feeling a gradual stretch. Let your head come back to neutral position and shift your eyes straight ahead again. Repeat the same steps on the other side.


3. Hand on the Heart

Placing your hand over your heart and gently breathing can sooth your mind and body. This exercise allows the body to experience tough sensations, releasing oxytocin which invokes safety and trust. Start in a comfortable position. Place your hand over your heart. Breath gently, softly, and deeply into the heart space. If you wish, set an intention for your breathing (i.e. breathe a sense of ese, peace, or safety into your heart center). Remember one moment when you felt safe, loves, or cherished by another human being. Allow yourself to savor the feeling of the memory. Let yourself stay with these feelings for 30 seconds. Repeat this exercise as many times as desired.

To incorporate mindful breathwork into your daily routine, try scheduling a time and establishing commitment to practice breathing exercises. Remember to start small, begin practices with techniques lasting about 5 minutes per session, increasing the length of sessions as you progress. Set reminders to practice breathwork exercises to help remember. If you’re struggling to complete the breathing exercise or lacking motivation, take a break to reset, then come back to the practice. Lastly, remember to change it up by trying a variety of exercises to keep the practice new and exciting.

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