You are breathing right now. But were you aware of it before you read the previous sentence? We breathe constantly through every moment of our lives. Obviously. But the vast majority of these breaths are automatic. For good reason. Imagine having to choose to breathe - most of us wouldn't live ten minutes!
The wisdom of the body understands this. In our body there are basically two kinds of muscles: smooth, which are involuntary, and striated, which are voluntary. We choose when to move our legs, arms, neck and shoulders (all made up of striated muscles) and our body takes care of our heart, intestinal tract and other smooth muscles. Included in the latter group are our diaphragm and intercostal muscles, responsible for inflating and deflating our lungs. So why do we have the power to control these muscles that work automatically?
When we experience stress, whether internally or externally derived, a complex chain of action is started in the physical body. The sympathetic nervous system activates, stimulating different parts of the brain to release norepinephrine and epinephrine, as well as activating the HPA axis, often referred to as our reptilian brain. Within the HPA axis, the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal gland communicate to release stress hormones into the blood. In a healthy system, once the danger has passed this system terminates with the help of the parasympathetic nervous system and returns to a resting state. When an individual is under the influence of chronic stress however, the system remains in the "on" state, and the self-regulating feedback loop no longer works. As the individual experiences continual levels of stress hormones, the feedback loop itself begins to break down, resulting in increasing difficulty to leave the state of stress. So how do we flip the switch in this system?
When we consciously control the breath, we engage a part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC, often called the executive brain, is responsible for logic, decision making, and possibly even self-representation and regulation of context-appropriate behaviour. The PFC is an integral part of the HPA axis feedback loop, as it assisting in the termination of the amygdala stress response and regulating affect, or feelings. The more conscious and mindful the breath, the higher one's level of mindfulness becomes, and the stronger the PFC grows. The breath becomes the key to unlocking the door of calm, purposeful, peaceful thoughts and feelings.
The simple act of conscious breathing changes the way our brain works in the moment, and continued focus changes the way the brain grows and sets its new norm.
Adding additional mindful practices into your life can increase your power over stress and work to permanently rewire your brain. But that's another post ;)
*We are all doing our best. With empathy, education and effort we can make our best better*
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