The science behind calm breathing – a quick guide to our nervous systems
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.
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 – thinking of the immediate safety of our body – 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).
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
To put it simply, when we go into fight, flight and freeze, our bodies prioritise action, speed, response and survival, and they shut down ‘longer term’ functions, such as rational thinking, immune response, seeing the bigger picture and keeping the body healthy. So if our kids are constantly in fight, flight and freeze mode, it can have long term impacts for how they grow and develop.
It’s important to note here we say active as well as perceived threat. This system can be activated not just by actual threat, but by something your brain perceives as a threat. As humans we know that we are threatened by physical threats to our survival – such as predators; and social threats – we know we need others to survive as a species.
In modern times, physical threats may have changed and are rare – we aren’t as worried that a giant lion will eat us, however the social threats are still incredibly current. We are threatened by others rejecting us, abandoning us or judging us. For our kids, this may mean that perceived or actual threats are things like mum, dad or a caregiver leaving them somewhere, friends not playing with them at school, not getting on to the team they want, trying something new, or a big test.
Unfortunately, these days, due to increased technology, stressors and expectations on us and our kids, we all spend a lot of time with our sympathetic nervous systems activated. We are constantly connected, switched on, and conscious of perceived or actual social, emotional and psychological threats. We’re heightened.
Kids have vastly increased screen time, increased testing at school, social media and high intensity video games. This pushes them into an overly or chronic sympathetic state (sympathetic nervous systems switched on), which isn’t great for our mental or physical health. We see increases in chronic illness, lower immune systems, poor sleep, fatigue, poor performance and poor mental health.
The parasympathetic nervous system “rest and digest”
If the sympathetic nervous system is all about fast reaction, our parasympathetic nervous system is the antidote – the long term planner. The parasympathetic nervous system helps produce a state of equilibrium in the body. This is our slow-moving system that helps create balance and maintain general functions. It is this system that restores the body’s sense of calm, allowing it to relax, repair and restore. This is why it’s so important to strengthen this system in our kids, to embed resilience and coping abilities.
When this system is activated we see –
- Improved circulation and even distribution of energy amongst the brain and body systems
- Frontal lobe functions improved, such as rational thinking, creative thinking, improved attention, focus and improved empathy
- Digestion improved
- Slower, calm breathing
- Our pupils dilate – so we can literally see the “whole picture”
As you can see, this system is geared towards long term health and wellbeing with improved immune response, better digestion and sleep, energy conversation and maintaining a healthier balance in your body.
How do we activate our parasympathetic nervous system?
While the parasympathetic nervous system is also automatic in activation, at times it needs a little more help to turn on. This is mostly due to the overactive nature of our sympathetic nervous system in the world we live in.
Every adult and child are different in regard to what activates “rest and digest” for them – for some kids this may be reading a book, playing playdough or doing craft, for others it may be going for a walk or doing some yoga – something more physical in their body.
What we do know is that for most people, engaging in calm breathing will activate our parasympathetic nervous system, via our vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system and the 10th cranial nerve, connecting your brain stem to the rest of your body. It tells our heart to slow down, conserve energy and reduces the release of cortisol (our stress hormone).
Why our kids need calm breathing
Our nervous system is geared towards keeping us safe, healthy and protected. While the sympathetic nervous system is vital for survival, when it’s over reactive or triggered unnecessarily it can impact on a child’s learning, wellbeing, performance, sleep and mental health.
We know that the sympathetic nervous system can be triggered by real life scenarios or simply things we perceive to be a threat. We also know, for kids and adults alike, this can happen quickly, often and without much warning.
The body and the brain aren't separate. They have a unique connection that allows nervous system activation to travel from the brain to the body or from the body to the brain. Calm breathing helps us activate our parasympathetic nervous system (via the all-important vagus nerve) – leading our body to a rest and digest state. This sends that vital signal to the brain that it is calm, safe and no longer under threat.
Want to know a little more and how to help foster this skill? Head to our post – Calm breathing with your kids for more information on the power of calm breathing.
Written by Dr Lauren Moulds, Principal Psychologist at Big Little Steps Psychology for Brave and Able.