If you can't remember, that's not surprising. Most of us are so busy running around that we don't take the time to focus on our breath. But did you know that focusing on your breath can have some amazing benefits? In this blog post, we will discuss the benefits of slowing down and focusing on your breath and how the neurophysiological components of the autonomic nervous system play an important role of our own regulated state.
Breathing is one of the most important functions our bodies performs, and it is also one of the things we take the most for granted. We don't think about it unless we have to, but the reality is that how we breathe can have a profound effect on our physical and mental health. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and fast, which can lead to a host of problems including anxiety, headaches, increased stress hormones and a dysregulated state.
There are many benefits to be gained from slowing down our breathing and focusing on it. Some of the most well-known benefits is that it can help to lower our heart rate and blood pressure and improve our mood. Polyvagl theory is an evidenced-based theory explaining the impact of the autonomic nervous system on behaviour.
The Polyvagal Theory was devised by Stephen Porges (Porges, 1995). The theory proposes that the neurophysiological components of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) have evolved over time. Development of vagal nerve pathways has resulted in a hierarchy of neurophysiological processes. These processes influence a person’s behavioural response to stress. Consequently the ANS dictates the range of expression, communication, body and behaviour regulation, and recovery in stress-related situations (Porges, 2011). As a result the Polyvagal Theory provides a neurobiological explanation for social behaviours.
The ANS is comprised of two subsystems: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) (Austin, et al., 2007). The PNS is responsible for regulating the body’s anabolic activities including restoration, conservation and digestive functions. In contrast the SNS is responsible for stimulating the bodies reserves in preparation for metabolic activities including a flight or fight response (Porges, 2011). The vagus nerve plays an important role in regulating the ANS responses (Beauchaine, et al., 2007). When a response is required, the PNS and the SNS innervate the vagal nerve and coordinate a response to meet the stimulus demands. The vagus nerve contributes to the detailed feedback exchange between the brain and organs. This feedback sustains and regulates the bodies internal homeostasis (Porges, 2011). There are two main branches of the vagus nerve. The dorsal branch, also known as the vegetative vagus and the ventral branch, also known as the smart vagus. Each plays an individual role in inhibiting the SNS or the flight or fight response, which in turn impacts on heart rate regulation. Therefore the vagal nerve mechanics contributes to effective regulation of arousal, emotions and behaviours (Beauchaine, et al., 2007). When a person is faced with a stimulus there are several physiological responses that may occur.
Firstly the ANS assesses the environment through sensory input to determine the levels of risk. When the environment is determined to be safe, the PNS inhibits the SNS. This inhibiting factor enables a number of physiological responses. A person sustains a balanced arousal level (anabolic activity); heart rate and breathing remains regular, digestion continues, and pupils constrict for focused attention (Porges, 2011). Balanced arousal levels influences the person’s emotional reactivity. A person is able to sustain eye contact, communicate and engage within their surrounding environment (Porges, 2011). Secondly, if the environment is determined to be unsafe and if attention is unable to be sustained the vagal nerve no longer inhibits the SNS. The person begins to experience increased arousal levels (metabolic activity); heart rate and breathing increases, digestion ceases, pupils dilate and cardiac output increases (Porges, 2011). Increased arousal levels influences the person’s emotional reactivity as they prepare to mobilize for a fight or flight response (Beauchaine, et al., 2007). Participation in daily activities is reduced as the person may become withdrawn or show aggressive behaviour. Thirdly, if the adaptive flight or fight response fails the primitive component of PNS takes over. People who have not been able to regulate vagal nerve activity revert back to the primitive immobilisation freeze defence of the PNS. Arousal levels drop dramatically; heart rate, breathing, muscle tone, blood pressure and metabolism all slow down to a dangerous level and can cease causing death. This person shows no emotional reactivity (Porges, 2011).
Polyvagal Theory provides an explanation for difficulties seen in social communication, mobilisation and immobilisation behaviours. Polyvagal Theory explains how a person’s neurophysiological functioning can impact on communication, socialisation, and regulation of emotions and behaviours within the environment (Porges, 2003).
How is this relevant for my child in everyday life?
This is all well and good, but you might be wondering how this is relevant for your child. After all, they're not stressed out adults! But the reality is that children are under a lot of pressure these days. They are expected to achieve more academically, socially and emotionally than ever before. And while some pressure can be motivating, too much pressure can lead to anxiety and stress.
There are also environmental factors and sensory elements that can cause stress within a child. It is well documented that children diagnosed with Autism and or Attention Deficit disorders often experience sensory processing discrepancies. Children who have sensory processing difficulties can have a heightened level of arousal. The way we perceive the world and how well we process and react to it affects our level of arousal and regulation. If a car drives past and backfires, typical people can process the event, analyse the sensory information, and determine there is no real threat. A child who may have difficulties with interpreting the elements around them may hear the car, and automatically perceive it as a threat. This triggers the autonomic nervous system (SNS) into action and the child has a “flight fight” response. What comes next, is behaviour that does not match the environmental elements. This child may scream, cover their ears, cry unable to be soothed, become violent, They may freeze unable to talk or move, they may take off running down the street and not hear you calling them back. The need for survival outweighs anything else and their body and the SNS takes over.
The good news is that we can tap into our PNS with our breath and turn on the “rest and digest” response and inhibit the SNS even when our arousal levels are heightened. When we activate the PNS, it sends a signal to the brain that everything is ok and that we can relax. This then has a cascade of positive effects on our physical and mental health including lowering blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, increase communication, regulate behaviour and increase social interaction. There are many ways to help your child focus on their breath. One of the simplest things you can do is model it for them. When you take a few moments to focus on your own breath, they will see that it's important to you and that it's something you do to relax. You can also teach them some specific breathing exercises that they can do when they are feeling stressed. Remember you are aiming for slow deep inhalation with long, slow, controlled exhalation.
Here are a few breathing exercises that you can try with your child:
Belly Breathing: Have your child lie on their back and place their hands on their belly. As they breathe in, their belly should rise and as they breathe out, their belly should fall.
Toy or Teddy Breathing: Ask the child to lay on their back, and then place a light weight toy or teddy on their chest. Ask your child to take deep breaths in and slow breathes out and watch the teddy rise and fall with each breath
Pursed Lip Breathing: Have your child breathe in through their nose for a count of two and then breathe out through pursed lips for a count of four.
Five finger breathing: start with your index finger at the base of your thumb. Inhale deeply and slowly slide your finger up your thumb to the top. Exhale slowly with control. Sliding your finger down. Repeat to the end of your hand.
Blowing bubbles: blow air through a straw into a bowl of water with soap and watch the bubbles appear and grow. You can intensify the exhale by changing the diameter of the straw – thin, thick, juice box straw
Air Soccer: scrunch up small balls of crepe paper. Use a straw to aim and blow the ball into the goal or have a competition to see who can blow the furthest.
Find fun whistles online or from hot dollar party shops. Some balance balls in a basket
Blow up a balloon
Occupational therapy can help!
An occupational therapist can teach your child specific breathing exercises and relaxation techniques that will help them to feel calm and focused. They can also provide guidance on how to incorporate these techniques into your child's daily routine.
We hope you found this blog post helpful. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact us. Occupational therapy can help! Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques that will help them to feel calm and focused. Contact us
If you'd like to know more, reach out to the KiddOTherapy team for more information on occupational therapy and how it can assist your family.