Acute stress serves as a crucial survival instinct; when faced with a threatening situation, our brain swiftly triggers the fight-or-flight response. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, boosting heart rate and blood pressure to supply more blood and oxygen to our muscles, preparing us to either fight or flee. This response also activates the immune system, providing added protection against potential infections if we were to get injured.
While occasional, short-term stress can be beneficial and life-saving, chronic and persistent stress, along with anxiety, can be detrimental. Anxiety manifests as a feeling of unease and fear about the future, even in the absence of immediate danger. This is accompanied by a heightened state of arousal and increased alertness.
Prolonged periods of heightened vigilance due to a demanding job, financial stress, or challenging relationships can lead to continuous activation of the sympathetic nervous and cortisol systems. This, in turn, can result in elevated blood pressure, inflammation, immune suppression, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Preclinical studies suggest that prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system may accelerate the aging process.
On the flip side, in moments of tranquillity and serenity, it’s the parasympathetic system that takes the lead. This system, activated through the vagus nerve, brings about a decrease in heart rate, a lowering of blood pressure, heightened production of salivary, gastric juices, and bile secretion, increased intestinal motility, and the dilation of blood vessels in the genital and digestive areas.
Accumulating evidence demonstrates that intentionally adjusting our breathing patterns can effectively activate the parasympathetic nervous system, influencing the brain through both direct and indirect pathways.
Engaging in deep, controlled diaphragmatic breathing also triggers neurohormonal responses that inhibit sympathetic activity, leading to a reduction in stress and anxiety levels.
Specific breathing techniques, often integrated into practices like yoga or pranayama, can be honed and routinely employed to regulate various physiological responses governed by the autonomic nervous system.