esther m palmer

deep breathing, your nervous system, and you

Let’s all take a deep breath…

Have you heard that deep breathing is a good way to calm down and relax? Well, I’m here to say it’s true! …except when it’s not. Like the day I left meditation class with my heart racing because I’d overdone it on a breathing exercise. I was surprised because this wasn’t my usual experience in meditation class. What had happened and why?


Your breathing is linked to your nervous system

The explanation for my odd reaction is simple. I had, through breathing (and probably a lot of attitude), revved up my heart and charged up my nervous system for a confrontation –when I had no need of fighting anyone. Our breathing and physiological state (and therefore our emotional state) are causally linked. Breathing is part of a network of systems with many moving and interrelating parts. It ebbs and flows with the risings and fallings of your autonomic nervous system and is a key player in autonomic regulation – when you can access it.

Before I get into that, it’ll be helpful to review the fancy terms and some basic facts about your nervous system.


Your nervous system in brief

The human nervous system has two main parts: the Central Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System. The CNS is made up of your brain and spinal cord. The ANS is made up of everything else – all the nerves running from the spinal cord out into your body. Nerve signals travel between CNS and ANS, between your body and your brain, and that two-way communication is essential. The rest of what I’m going to share sounds like it’s all about the ANS –and it is, but I just want to make to point out that the ANS is sending and receiving signals to the brain throughout it all!

Your Autonomic Nervous System
Within the ANS there are subsystems that are in constant interplay for each of us throughout the day, regulating our response to our environment (both external and internal) so that we can stay alive. These subsystems are useful to know by name, because I’ll refer to them a bunch:

  • Sympathetic nervous system – responsible for preparing the body/brain to respond to danger. A sympathetic response charges up our muscles and brain for a physical fight or flight. This process diverts resources away from slow thinking, digestion, reproduction, and immune system function.
  • Dorsal vagal system (part of the parasympathetic nervous system) – responsible for shutting down the body/brain as a last attempt to survive a threat. A dorsal vagal response freezes the body and/or mind, essentially “playing dead.” This can explain fainting, and also depressive moods and behaviors.
  • Ventral vagal system (part of the parasympathetic nervous system) – responsible for restoring or continuing the body/brain in a state of safety, healing, and life maintenance. A ventral vagal response puts the brake on any sympathetic or dorsal activity and resources are re-routed to all those systems necessary for not just surviving, but also thriving.


How do these responses affect your breathing?

Changes in nervous system activity can change your breathing (and vice versa).

When your sympathetic response charges up, your breathing rate speeds up as part of the need to power up your muscles with more circulating blood and oxygen. Rapid or sharp or irregular breathing is a sign of an SNS response.

When you start to move back into a ventral vagal response, your breathing returns to normal and can be steady or deep and slow.


It goes both ways

You can also use breathing to shift your nervous system activity. We use breathing to move into a ventral vagal response all the time with practices like calm deep breathing and lengthening your exhales in a comfortable way. There are simple breathing practices you can learn and use when needed or daily, and I’ll share two of my favorites next time.

For the other side of the ANS, you might also use breathing to stir up the sympathetic response to prepare for a physical challenge. This is how I got stuck with my heart racing –except that it wasn’t intentional! The primary breathing practice we use in ISHTA meditation uses a challenging breath ratio, and I was working on lengthening my breath retention. Normally this would be ok with the long exhales and shorter inhales. But I was pushing my body further than it was comfortable going. Without realizing it, I had entered into a competition with myself, waking up my sympathetic response. My body was ready for a fight!

After that, I wasn’t really in a state to use “deep breathing” to calm myself down, at least not without help. Luckily, my next appointment was a teaching swap with a colleague and friend who immediately understood the state I was in and suggested I teach rather than be put through exercises. Seeing a friendly face, hearing a reassuring voice, and getting to teach (which usually grounds and centers me) all helped me gradually shift back into a ventral vagal state.

My meditation episode came about by taking a conscious practice too far. It was quickly brought on, but also pretty quickly resolved. Had I been alone, I’m confident I could have calmed myself down one way or another because I know my body well, know what calms me, and am used to doing practices to encourage a certain body/mind state. I’ve learned how to regulate my nervous system responses using various practices.


What happens when you don’t know how to regulate?

We all have the same ANS, the same capacity for engaging with it – either to take conscious control of our body/mind state and to be shifted “automatically” in response to an event, a thought, or a trigger.

Triggers awaken a stress response that was once useful for survival. These are sympathetic or dorsal vagal responses that were stored in your body/mind for quick retrieval in future – in case your life is threatened again in a similar way. And while our nervous system is really good at protecting us, it’s not always so good at splitting hairs when it comes to things that may or may not be life threatening. A loud sound is a loud sound. A rejection is a rejection. Whatever your body or mind links with a past experience is likely to be broad enough that there are other examples in the world. Your nervous system still calls on protective action before your mind has a chance to assess what kind of threat you’re experiencing – a manageable one or a life threatening one. This makes what might otherwise be a manageable experience into a trigger for a strong response.

As we’ve seen, your nervous system state and your breathing are intertwined, and how you breathe may trigger or come about with a triggered stress response. More importantly, you might breath the way you do to keep you in a protected state. Changing it, even if it would eventually be useful, might in any given moment be frightening and feel impossible. And so if “take a deep breath” initiates a sympathetic response, whether it’s to avoid a direct threat or to avoid lowering your shield, the calming effect of lengthening and slowing your breathing will be inaccessible in that moment. Thankfully, you can learn how to gain access again. (Movement practices on Moved to Heal are all created with this learning in mind.)


Breathing is universal and personal

Breathing is very personal. In my teaching, I avoid instructing the breath, offering instead options, suggestions, and rhythms you can choose to follow or ignore. I encourage you to find your own way in, over time. Once you can feel comfortable tapping into your breath as a resource, you can use it to help regulate your ANS (we call that autonomic regulation). When you start working with breathing as a practice, there may be some experiences along the way that are unsettling or uncomfortable or even scary, which is why it is helpful to start breath work with a teacher who can help you regulate in the moment through other means (more on that in a future post). If you’re a survivor of trauma, you might consider seeking out a therapist with some kind of body-based modality in their methodology (such as trauma-sensitive yoga, somatic experiencing, NARM, and many others). Of course, if you’re already seeing someone you like who doesn’t have that experience, consider trying a separate body-based practice, which might be as simple as joining a yoga class, either one that is expressly trauma-informed or taught by a teacher with trauma-informed training (such as my Sunday classes!).

In a follow up post, I’ll share some breathing practices and suggestions for how to find a comfortable way in whenever you’re ready to try them.

Be moving, be true, be you,

photo credit mahdis mousavi, found on unsplash

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