Getting Our Nerves in Balance
Restoring and maintaining physical balance involves learning how to prevent the build-up of tension in our bodies. Chapter Six pointed out patterns of tension that correspond to the stress response, while Chapter Seven described how tension is produced when our autonomic nervous system gets out of balance. The next two chapters focus on developing specific skills that allow us to arrest and prevent the build-up of physical tension.
The build-up of tension in our muscles interferes with almost everything we do. It inhibits smooth movement and wastes energy in addition to blocking receptivity and clear thinking. In athletes, tension interferes with performance and increases the likelihood of injury. There is no build-up of surplus tension when there is a balance between energy and action. Getting rid of built-up tension allows us to function at full capacity and effectively adapt and respond to changing circumstances.
I think of tension as a process rather than a static condition. Instead of thinking of tension as something we “have” or “carry,” it helps to recognize that tension is something that we are doing as well as something that has built-up from what we did in the past.
When we stop tensing, we begin to relax. The key is to recognize how and when we are tensing, to learn ways to stop it and then to set up regular practice in order to recover from tension that built up over time. I will describe two methods for doing this. This chapter explains the process of Natural Rhythmic Breathing, which allows us to regulate our autonomic nervous system. (Previously, I referred to this as “Diaphragmatic Breathing.” I stopped using that term because many others use it to teach a wide range of techniques that are very different from this process.)
Chapter Twelve describes a process called “grounding” which helps us become aware of patterns of built-up tension in our bodies and helps us learn to let them go.
Undermining Tension at the Source
Chapter Seven explained how the two parts (sympathetic and parasympathetic) of the nervous system work in opposition to each other. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system suppresses the sympathetic nervous system, which supplies the energy that creates tension. We can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system by changing the way we breathe. Specifically, it involves movement of the diaphragm, which is a muscle, shaped like a parachute, at the bottom of our lungs. When this muscle moves up and down in a slow, steady, continuous rhythm, the build-up of tension stops. This does not immediately resolve tension that has built up over time, but it does stop tension from building in the moment.
I have seen this effect in thousands of people over the past four decades. When the diaphragm is moving in a slow, easy rhythm, it ends the build-up of tension. My understanding is that the slow, rhythmic movement of the diaphragm stimulates the right vagus nerve, which passes through the diaphragm and is a primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system. This movement needs to be fairly precise to be effective. It doesn’t work when there are stops and starts or pauses. It doesn’t work when it is too fast or too slow.
How to Feel Your Diaphragm
A simple way to feel your diaphragm is to gently press the palm of your hand just below your sternum (breast bone), where your ribs begin to separate. Sniff a few times, as if you were trying to get a whiff of a familiar smell on the wind. The bouncing that you feel under your hand results from the movement of your diaphragm.
How To Breathe Using the Diaphragm
The first time you try it, it is helpful to keep your hand below your sternum as described above. As you inhale, allow the air to come all the way to the bottom of your lungs – you will feel the diaphragm move. Once the diaphragm is moving, it can be helpful to put your hand over your abdomen, near your belt line. Your hand will move out as you inhale and in as you exhale. Allow this movement to settle into a slow easy rhythm. Allow three to four seconds for the inhale and the same for the exhale. Do not pause between breaths.
Make sure that it is your breathing that is moving your abdomen, not your muscles. Pushing in and out with your abdominal muscles has no effect and will interfere with Natural Rhythmic Breathing.
It is easier to move the diaphragm if you are leaning back slightly. If you are leaning forward, your diaphragm presses against your stomach and intestines and this can restrict the movement a bit. A subtle but important part of mastering Natural Rhythmic Breathing is to think of allowing it to happen rather than making it happen. Trying too hard generates tension, which overrides the parasympathetic nervous system. Be patient. A bit of practice may be necessary to get it right, but it is well worth the effort.
When done properly, Natural Rhythmic Breathing immediately stops the stress response from building. You can feel a difference after three or four breaths. This can slow things down enough so that you can avoid saying or doing things that are likely to make a tense situation worse. Continuing to practice the Natural Rhythmic Breathing during a stress situation helps to clear our thinking and allows us to evaluate our options. In over forty years of working with Natural Rhythmic Breathing, I have never seen someone continue to build tension when their diaphragm is moving in the proper rhythm.
Things That Get in the Way
Occasionally, clients or students will report that Natural Rhythmic Breathing is “not working” for them. Over the years, I’ve identified a number of things that seem to subvert the effects of this process. The most common is when the breath starts in the chest before the diaphragm begins to move. It is necessary for the inhale to come all the way to bottom of the lungs. Think of filling a glass with water. The water goes to the bottom of the glass first and then fills the rest of the way. Our breathing needs to follow the same pattern in order to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Another common problem is breathing too fast or too slow. I have found that Natural Rhythmic Breathing works only when there is a minimum of three seconds and a not much more than four seconds for each inhale and exhale (for a total of six to eight seconds for each full breath). I am not sure why this is true, but it has been very consistent in my experience. I worked with a man who had a lung injury from breathing noxious chemicals. He was suffering from panic attacks, and I noticed that he was taking only about a second for each inhale and exhale. We used a stop-watch to train him to slow his breathing. The panic attacks stopped once he reached three seconds.
Pausing between breaths also seems to subvert the effects of Natural Rhythmic Breathing. Again, I am not sure of the reasons for this, but my experience has been consistent. Stress symptoms begin to disappear when the inhale and the exhale are continuous without any pause between them.
A more subtle way to undermine the effect of Natural Rhythmic Breathing is trying too hard. It can appear that someone’s abdomen is moving up and down in a nice, easy rhythm when actually it is being forced by effort, thus creating tension and stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. The effort of forced breathing is usually evidenced by a furrowing of the brow or tensing of the jaw. It seems that when the autonomic nervous system gets contradictory messages, the sympathetic system wins and overrides the parasympathetic response. It is not necessary to breathe perfectly the first time you try it. But it’s helpful to remember that Natural Rhythmic Breathing is your body’s natural way to breathe when you are at rest. Our bodies want to breathe that way. We simply have to pay attention and allow it to happen.
Sometimes there appears to be a significant amount of tension in the diaphragm and you simply cannot seem to get the diaphragm to move. I have seen this particularly in working with clients suffering from chronic pain. In most cases, continuing to practice the Natural Rhythmic Breathing (without trying too hard) eventually loosens things up enough so that it has the desired effect. Occasionally, using other relaxation approaches can settle things down enough to allow the diaphragm to began moving effectively.
What if I Can’t Do It?
I have discovered some tricks that appear to help stimulate Natural Rhythmic Breathing when it seems difficult. I have also used these approaches with children and mentally impaired people who weren’t able to understand verbal directions. The simplest technique is to lie prone (on the stomach) with a pillow under the chest. This restricts chest breathing enough so that the air moves down to the diaphragm. It usually takes a little longer this way than when we can start the process consciously, but I have found it to work well. A similar technique is to hold a pillow, or just our arms, gently against our upper chest.
We can often stimulate Natural Rhythmic Breathing by making a very full exhalation – breathing out all of our air until the lungs feel empty. Then we simply relax. The next breath most often will move the diaphragm. I would recommend not doing this more than once, to avoid hyperventilation. Another technique is to press very gently against the abdomen during the exhale and then to lift your hand during the inhale. This seems to stimulate the Natural Rhythmic Breathing.
Breathing Patterns During Stress and Activity
It’s not possible to use Natural Rhythmic Breathing when we are physically active. We use our chest muscles to breathe when we need extra oxygen to support activity. We can feel our chest heave in and out whenever we engage in strenuous activity. Breathing this way stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and is the type of breathing that is evident during the stress response. Chest breathing is the opposite of Natural Rhythmic Breathing. It is also the “normal” mode of breathing for someone who struggling with long-term stress. Clients and students will sometimes start out using a blended kind of breathing when first learning this technique. The abdomen clearly moves, indicating that the diaphragm is working, but the chest also moves. It makes a difference which moves first. I have found that there is eventually a positive effect if the abdomen rises first, indicating that the diaphragm has moved first. However, in my experience, if the chest moves first there is no effect. After regular practice, when the breathing becomes natural, the chest does not move at all.
Remembering to Use It
The hardest thing about learning to control the stress response through Natural Rhythmic Breathing is establishing the pattern and remembering to use it. We breathe all the time, and we’re not used to thinking about how we breathe. Clients and students who are most successful set up a routine in which they link practicing Natural Rhythmic Breathing with a normal activity in their daily schedule. Some like to practice when they first wake up; others after their morning shower or before breakfast. Linking Natural Rhythmic Breathing with meals is a good practice, because stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system helps with proper digestion. Other popular times include during normal breaks, while driving, in the elevator, during commercials, while waiting, and before going to bed. Natural Rhythmic Breathing can be very helpful if one has trouble falling asleep. Sympathetic nervous system activation interferes with sleep. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system turns down the “nervous” energy that can keep us awake.
How Often and How Long to Practice
The amount of practice that has seemed to be consistently effective in restoring balance, in my experience, is six times per day for three to five minutes. Many have reported significant progress by practicing less. However, no one I have worked with has remained in a high stress state after practicing Natural Rhythmic Breathing six times per day for two to four weeks. Most people report that after consciously practicing for three or four weeks they notice they are moving the diaphragm in the proper rhythm without thinking about it. That’s an indication that your body is regaining its physical balance.
Regular practice leads to the condition where Natural Rhythmic Breathing becomes your normal pattern of breathing during rest. It is still helpful to continue practicing at regular intervals, but many report that they automatically begin breathing in the natural rhythm at times when previously they would have practiced, such as at meals or before bedtime. When Natural Rhythmic Breathing becomes a regular part of our lives, there is a tendency to notice when our breathing changes in response to increased stress levels. We now have a very helpful indicator that not only helps us recognize potential stressors but also cues when to practice Natural Rhythmic Breathing in order to stop tension from building before it really gets going.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.