From fight or flight to rest and digest: How to reset your nervous system with the breath

Updated: May 15, 2018

Simple breath techniques to relieve stress and promote longevity

If we observe an animal being chased by a predator, after the long pursuit, if the animal runs free, we may notice their body physically quiver to reset their nervous system. The ability to literally “shake it off” is a natural response that some animals have to relieve stress and trauma, and rebalance their nervous system.

Although our most imminent dangers may be impending deadlines, road rage, financial insecurity or taxing schedules, our nervous system may still interpret our anxiety, stress and fear as a response to a potential life threat. The impact of this stressor over time may be detrimental to our long-term health, because we don’t reset our nervous system, remaining in fight or flight. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, accelerating our adrenal glands, cortisol levels and hormonal balance, which can affect our aging process.

Breathing deeply, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. Long, deep breaths can also manage our stress responses to help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat and shallow chest breathing. These responses can directly impact our physical, mental and emotional health, and longevity.

The yogic science of breathing, known as pranayama in the ancient language of Sanskrit, is a technique of breathing and breath retention that is practiced to increase the vitality, longevity and life-force of the body. Pranayama practices include the observation, control, expansion, retention and manipulation of the breath. Pranayama is a mechanism that can help increase memory, improve circulation and promote oxygenation of the blood. A recent study showed that “the physical and cognitive benefits associated with yoga and mindfulness may be due to mechanisms including pranayama and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.” This activation prompts the body to rest, rejuvenate and regenerate efficiently, allowing the system to detoxify and return to homeostasis.