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Deep Breathing and the Vagus Nerve - a natural stress reliever, November 2020 edition

Today is for deep breathing. So will tomorrow be.

What happens physically when we breathe a deep breath? Well, a whole lot actually. I am always afraid that by telling someone to practice deep breathing I will irritate them or trigger them. Sometimes that happens. But what I have really become interested in is the anatomical illustration of what happens when a person breathes deeply. And on the other side, what does it look like for the body to be locked in the function of shallow breathing?

In my practice and studies of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we talk about how emotions manifest physically in the body. When you are anxious, how does it feel in your body? Do you get hot, sweaty and irritated? Does your chest tighten, making it hard to take a deep breath? Does your stomach rumble and cramp? Do you sleep and feel heavy? Does it throw you into a manic state of control?

We learn how to react from childhood. These learned reactions are innate by the time we grow into adulthood. Unlearning our emotional patterns is difficult and revealing, but by creating a practice of calm we can slowly unweave the internalized behaviors we subconsciously hold onto, and hopefully, decrease disruptive physical symptoms.

So let's get physical with the breath. When we breathe deep we stimulate the vagus nerve and our parasympathetic nervous system - our rest and digest functions. The vagus nerve, know as the "wanderer", is the 10th cranial nerve, and connects from the brainstem to the abdomen. (Click on picture to link to source).

Also known as the "brain-gut axis" this nerve transports important information from your organs to your brain. This nerve's function is helpful for folx who experience PTSD, any inflammatory bowel syndromes such as IBS or IBD, anxiety and depression, and so on (Breit et al).

Again we see two oppositions working together (think Yin and Yang). The parasympathetic nervous system functions to open and stimulate, it helps with bowel motility and glandular secretion. The sympathetic nervous system functions to constrict and tense by reducing gut activity and blood flow to your gut and increasing heart rate while constricting your blood vessels. All your qi is bursting into your heart and muscles in response to whatever stressful reaction you are having (Breit et al).

It's not that the sympathetic nervous system is bad and the parasympathetic nervous system is good - they are both necessary. The problem is disharmony. The current state of the world is putting our sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. It is high as a kite right now. Seriously, there is so much to digest these days, and most of the time we are just trying to figure out how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy. For most individuals and families, this year has been a very challenging one.

Brené Brown, a prolific writer, researcher, storyteller, explains in "on Anxiety, Calm + Over/Under-Functioning" about how anxiety creates either underfunctioning and overfunctioning reactions (this was originally conceptualized by Harriet Lerner). Brown explains, "Overfunctioners tend to move quickly to give advice, rescue, takeover, micromanage, get in other people’s business rather than looking inward. Underfunctioners tend to get less competent under stress. They invite others to take over and often become the focus of family gossip, concern, worry. They can get labeled as irresponsible, or the fragile ones, the ones who can’t take the pressure." Whether you are one or the other in your response to anxiety, it is contagious. Brown explains that creating a "calm practice" can help inspire others to feel calm too. Whether your anxiety makes you feel useless and aloof, or controlling and stiff - learning how to breathe deep and relax yourself will help harmonize. If anxiety is making your blood rate rise, we know that some kind of practice of calming yourself will help regulate your qi down and inward, where you really need it.

Our actions and reactions are patterns we learn when we are so young. By creating a practice of calm, of breathing and moving through, we stimulate our vagus nerve, therefore our parasympathetic nervous system, activating our gut, dilating our intestines, secreting important fluids, and moving bowels (turbid qi). We can bring our energy inward, instead of letting it escape outward. We can allow our anxiety to arrive but not disrupt.

There are lots of ways to stimulate your vagus nerve naturally - or as vagus aficionados call it - increasing vagal tone. This can happen with yoga, breathing and meditation; with singing and laughing; with gargling and humming; with massage, acupuncture and exercise. All of these things help us stay happy and calm.

As we sit and wait to see what happens - in the political world, the public health world, the financial world, the natural world - we can use these ever darker days to allow ourselves the gift of a calm practice. Think about what your body is physically doing (and honestly I've only scratched the surface). Think about how you can make clearer decisions when you are not emotionally reacting to something. Think about how you want to transport your vital qi, your blood and fluids. Think about how to see that divine power within yourself and tap into it. Think about how your overall ability to function is changed by that.

I am not saying any of this is easy, but it is possible. May the vagus force be with you.


Breit, Kupferberg, Rogler and Hasler. "Vagus Nerve as a Modulator of the Brain-gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders". Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2018.

Brown, Brené . "Brené on anxiety, calm, and over/under functioning". Unlocking Us. April 2020.

Wells, Katie. "How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Function to Reduce Inflammation and Support the Brain". March 2020.

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