Have you ever felt like you’re stuck somewhere between your fight-or-flight reaction? When you get stressed out, part of you wants to run. Yet another part of you wants to face the challenge head-on.
You can get control over this response through a technique called vagal breathing. But first, you’ll need to understand what the vagal nerve is and why it’s so important.
Your vagal nerve starts in your brainstem, and it continues down the sides of your next and extends across your chest. It also runs through your abdomen. This bundle of nerve fibers sends messages from your organs to your brain, essentially forming a communication network throughout your entire body.
It’s part of your parasympathetic nervous system, and if you can learn to regulate it, you can calm your adrenaline response in stressful situations.
Here’s how to practice vagal breathing so that you can center yourself and avoid getting trapped in a fight-or-flight response.
Relax and Get Comfortable
First, find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Place your hand on your heart or your belly—you can choose to do whatever feels best for you. Close your eyes, and simply tune in to your natural breathing pattern for a few inhales and exhales.
Then, try to create a rhythm with your inhales and exhales. Feel how your belly expands as you inhale, and when you exhale, draw your belly back towards your spine. Repeat this pattern and motion.
Inhaling and Exhaling
You’re probably feeling fairly relaxed now, and it’s time to sink deeper into your rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. Inhale deeply through your nose, then exhale through your mouth.
Send your breath to the back of your sinus cavity and then exhale by making a soft “Ha” sound. Allow yourself to lengthen your exhale. This is known as an “ujjayi breath,” which serves to relax your vagal nerve.
Extend Your Exhale
Next, you’ll want to pause your inhalation at the top of your inhale for about three seconds. Don’t rush the count, just let yourself relax in this moment and notice the space between your breaths. Pay attention to how your body feels.
Exhale slowly, and as you release your breath, continue exhaling even when you think you’ve reached the “bottom” of the exhale. You probably have more air in your lungs than you realize! You can continue this pattern for several breaths.
This is especially helpful if you feel very stressed and have plenty of time to sit in meditation – you do not need to rush yourself through this process.
Shift Your Focus
Now, it’s time to open your eyes, but only slightly. Lift your eyelids, but keep your face relaxed. Notice a point in front of you on the floor, and allow your focus to rest there. As you do this, stick with the breathing pattern you’ve been practicing.
This step will allow you to gradually ease back into your natural breathing pattern.
Return to Natural Breathing
Finally, you can fully open your eyes. But don’t stand up just yet. Instead, take a few moments to sit still as you inhale and exhale. You no longer have to stick with the ujjayi pattern—you can allow yourself to breathe how you usually do.
Reflect on how your body feels. Even if you do not feel like you’ve completely eliminated your anxious feelings, you probably feel calmer and more relaxed after this breathing technique!
Interested in learning about vagal breathing and other techniques to calm your nervous system? Working with a therapist can help. Reach out to us to discuss your options for scheduling your first session.