Engage Your Vagus Nerve: Breathing Techniques For Relaxation And Insomnia Relief

Concerns about the long-term impact of chronic stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia is a topic of concern for many of my coaching and therapy clients. A few stressful, sleepless nights can easily spiral into a regular problem as clients begin to develop a negative relationship with bedtime and sleep. Many will seek the help of a psychiatrist to obtain prescription medications in an effort to break the cycle. This is reasonable for many in the short-term, but less than ideal as a long-term solution. I always recommend lifestyle modifications and attempts at simple changes in the environment first. In addition to dimming the lights and reducing evening electronic stimulation, some helpful evening rituals include: meditation, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, restorative yoga, gentle stretching to release tension in the body, a warm bath, tea, herbs and homeopathic support. You may not be aware that throughout your busy day, your breathing has become shallow. Your thoughts likely contribute to this process as well. When you are having negative thoughts or feeling demands and pressure, you create tension in your body by inhaling longer than you're exhaling. The goal is to help you become more mindful of this process throughout your day and create greater ease in your body. 

Breathing keeps us alive, but you may not know about the importance of enlisting your diaphragm and lungs to relax your nervous system. As you go about your day, you need your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to help with metabolism and keep you alert and managing the stress and demands of the day. All good, and just as it's meant to be! However, as you move towards evening, your body needs to power down -- it's time to relax, unwind, conserve energy, and allow for the cellular renewal and healing that occurs with sleep. This is when the parasympathetic division (PNS) becomes your restoration ally. Both aspects, the SNS and PNS are divisions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which has the job of regulating and maintaining vital organ function. 

With every inhale, you activate the SNS -- It's an energizing function, speeding up the heart rate and allowing you to prepare for activity and alertness. When you exhale, the PNS is turned on which then activates the vagus nerve, thus slowing the heart rate. What's the point of all of this? When you exhale, and especially when you consciously lengthen your exhale, this calms your nervous system and creates a natural sedation. Thats right -- natural, organic, drug-free sedation that you can learn to activate on your own, as needed! If you already have a regular yoga, meditation or pranayama practice, you know that deep inhalation energizes and invigorates, while the process of exhalation calms, de-stresses, and grounds the body and nervous system. 

Yoga practitioners can choose to emphasize relaxation or energizing, depending on the particular needs of the mind and body. If you're trying to manage conditions such as anxiety, insomnia and depression, it's helpful to know how to focus your breathing efforts. With respect to general health, lack of stimulation can contribute to depression, while over-stimulation can lead to anxiety and insomnia. Certain medications, recreational drug and alcohol use, sugar, uncontrolled stress and poor lifestyle habits can contribute to emotional health challenges. Whether you're struggling with anxiety or depression, it's good to know that you may be able to support positive health changes by focusing just on your breathing! 

I frequently suggest the following simple breathing technique... 

  1. Once you're in bed, your room and surroundings should be free from distractions, light and noise -- settle in and allow your body to relax into the comfort of your bed. 
  2. Take even, relaxed breaths. When you're ready, take deeper, even breaths. Initially, you can mentally count, allowing the inhale to equal the count of the exhale. Most are comfortable with an inhale of 3 counts, and an exhale of 3. You can also connect to the body by placing a hand on your chest or belly, noticing the rise and fall of your body.  
  3. You might observe your thoughts, sounds in your environment and various sensations in the body, as you do this. Gently bring your awareness back to the steady rhythm of the breath. 
  4. As you become comfortable with the six count breathing technique 3/3, begin to focus on lengthening exhalation. The shorter inhalation will be followed with a slightly longer exhalation. The goal is to experience a deepened relaxation in mind and body. 

When the sun greets you in the morning, you can consider lengthening the inhalation, as needed, throughout the day to activate the SNS, giving you the necessary energy to move through your day. 

Cheat sheet...

  • Longer inhale for energy and alertness
  • Longer exhale to activate the vagus nerve and relaxation response