Lesson 3: The Nervous System

Mindful breathing is good for the mind and body! Research shows that slowed breathing puts the body into a parasympathetic state also known as rest and digest. It is one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system conserves energy, slows heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.

The autonomic nervous system functions to regulate the body’s unconscious actions. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of three parts: 1) sympathetic nervous system 2) parasympathetic nervous system and 3) the enteric nervous system. 

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that supplies the internal organs, including the blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, bladder, genitals, lungs, pupils, heart, sweat, salivary, and digestive glands. The hypothalamus, a brain structure important for regulating homeostasis, receives signals from the body and tunes the activity of the autonomic nervous system in response.

The sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. When the body is in a sympathetic state, also referred to as the fight, flight-or-freeze response system. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered after the amygdala sends a distress signal, and the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream.

The parasympathetic nervous system also known as the rest and digest system conserves energy and slows the heart rate. The parasympathetic system conserves energy, slows the heart rate – also resulting in the lowering of blood pressure, increases gland and intestinal activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal system. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) releases the hormone acetylcholine to slow the heart rate.

Breathing resets, the nervous system. Deep breathing, 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 also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing.

Because our body is trained in most cases to breathe shallowly keeping air trapped in the chest instead of fully expanding into the lungs, we must retrain the body on how to breathe properly. Fully expanding the lungs with each inhalation and fully releasing the air with each exhalation. 

Becoming aware of your breath and breathing habits, especially in high moments of stress is the first step to correcting it. Utilizing these moments to adjust your breathing and retraining the body on how to breathe to calm the central nervous system is essential to reducing and calming your body’s response to how stress is affecting it.

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