How Mindful Breathing Benefits Your Relationships: Tapping Into the Power of the Vagus Nerve
by B. Grace Bullock, Ph.D./E RYT 500
Did you know that chronic stress leads to behavior that can harm your relationships? Research shows that when your brain and nervous system are dominated by the stress response you are prone to greater anxiety, irritability, negative mood and uncompromising behavior, all of which can damage your connections with others.
In my book, Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain (Handspring Publishing, 2016), I illustrate how, when stressed, you lose access to higher cognitive functions like paying attention, listening, planning, reasoning, and the capacity to communicate successfully. The book outlines seven evidence-based skills for improving relationships, beginning with breath awareness and modification. Breath modification is an essential starting point, as skillful communication is often out of the question until the stress response has been down-regulated.
Research by John Gottman Ph.D., renowned relationship expert and author of the best selling book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, demonstrates that it is virtually impossible to speak effectively when we are overcome by physiological stress. His studies, which include hundreds of couples, show that when an individual’s heart rate is elevated above 100 beats per minute, he or she loses the capacity to sustain a mindful conversation. But the solution may be easier than you think.
Eastern contemplative traditions and decades of neurobiological studies concur that breath modification may be one of the most accessible tools for defusing psychological stress and regaining the skills needed to relate to others appropriately and successfully. Here’s why:
Stress and The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The autonomic nervous system (ANS), a key player in the fight, flight, or freeze response, has long been proposed to influence social behavior. Its function is to respond to environmental demands by either catalyzing the mind-body system in response to threat, or maintaining homeostatic balance during which rest, repair, and growth are possible. The ANS is divided into two major branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS is often equated to a physiological “gas pedal.” When an organism perceives threat, the SNS dumps a cascade of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, contracting muscles, and depressing all non-essential functions, such as digestion.
In this state, the brain’s fear circuitry, which resides in the limbic system, becomes dominant, drawing important resources away from the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions where planning, reasoning, and effective communication occur. When the SNS is dominant, social behavior often becomes limited to survival strategies, including aggression, avoidance, or withdrawal.
The counterbalance to the SNS, the PNS, is often thought of as a physiological “brake pedal.” Under conditions of safety, the PNS initiates the relaxation response, which depresses heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, reduces muscle tone/contraction, and permits the body’s reparative and restorative functions. When the PNS is active, the brain’s fear circuitry is no longer mobilized, freeing up the ability to listen and respond mindfully, and enabling a wider and more flexible range of behavior.
The Vagus Nerve, Stress Response, and Social Behavior
The vagus nerve is an important component of the PNS that is responsible for regulating the stress response. The word vagus is Latin for wanderer. Indeed, the influence of the vagus nerve is diffuse. It originates in the medulla oblongata in the brain stem and projects to many visceral organs, including the heart, lungs and digestive tract, independently of the spinal column, and includes a complex of nerve branches that relay signals from the brain to the body, and from visceral organs to the brain. This bi-directional influence allows for the efficient regulation of metabolic output.
Activity of the vagus nerve is measured vis-à-vis respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). RSA refers to the rhythmic increase and decrease in heart rate that occurs synchronously with breathing. During inhalation, heart rate and respiration speed up (SNS), and PNS and vagal activity decline. With exhalation, PNS and vagal influence increase, slowing down respiration and heart rate. Greater RSA variability is associated with a higher capacity for effectively responding to challenge, and is related to better physical and psychological wellbeing.
When the stress response is initiated following real or perceived peril, the SNS kicks into high gear and depresses PNS and the vagus nerve. These coordinated physical reactions increase metabolic output to increase the likelihood of survival, but at a high cost to the body and brain. Once the threat is removed, the PNS and vagus nerve initiate recovery from stress, as well as growth and repair. If stress remains chronic, these necessary reparative functions are suspended, increasing the risk for illness, poor psychological health, and relationship strain.
In addition to its role in suppressing the stress response, the vagus nerve also controls muscles associated with speaking, swallowing, sucking, and, most importantly, breathing. It is important for social behavior because of its innervations of face and neck muscles that are essential for behavioral regulation, prosody of speech, and appropriate facial expression. When vagal nerve activation is inhibited by stress or other factors, the capacity to use speech, facial gestures, and behaviors to support healthy communication declines.
The Vagus Nerve and the Impact of Breath Regulation
Because the vagus nerve both influences and is impacted by respiration, you can support its activation and reduce the stress response by changing how you breathe. Intentional breathing is a simple practice that involves inhaling slowly and deeply, and exhaling gradually and with ease. It stimulates the vagus nerve and PNS, eliciting the relaxation response and decreasing activation of the brain’s limbic system and fear circuitry. This frees up the capacity to effectively think, plan, reason, and respond mindfully to others. Research also shows that intentional breathing may reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other stress-related health conditions.
With time and practice, intentional breathing can be used as a powerful tool to defuse stress, increase resilience, and manage difficult or conflictual interpersonal interactions. In changing how you breathe through intention and practice you pave the way to interact more skillfully and successfully with others.
Dr. B. Grace Bullock is a psychologist, research scientist, organizational strategist, science journalist, inspirational educator, and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. She partners with clients and organizations to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers education, training, workshops, coaching, and consultation that integrate the latest findings from applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, and psychology and contemplative science. Through communicating how the mind, body, and brain process stress and using simple, effective mindfulness-based tools, she creates individually tailored plans for clients and organizations seeking to defuse stress and increase awareness, attention, and effective communication, and improve relationships and their performance. She is the Contributing Editor for Science and Research at YogaU Online, a frequent contributor to Yoga International and Mindful, and the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information about intentional breathing and the seven skills of the BREATHE model, see www.bgracebullock.com or learn about her book, Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success http://mindfulrelationships.strikingly.com