The first part of this series explained that in order to hack into a system you need to first understand how the system operates. In relation to depression, we are talking about the Autonomic Nervous System. Only when you understand how the system operates, can you successfully hack it and change the programming.
If you missed that important information, please read it here to get caught up. Then come back to find out how you can hack depression.
Make the Unconscious become Conscious
We already discussed how depression and anxiety are highly correlated with the functioning of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Autonomic means happening without conscious awareness. Depression and anxiety are imbalances that result in sympathetic dominance (fight/flight/freeze) within the ANS.
In order to hack ANS you need to bring unconscious responses under conscious control. There is one physiological function that humans have which usually operates unconsciously and can also easily be under conscious control. That immensely critical function is breathing.
Breath Control is key
You can live weeks without food, days without water but only minutes without breath. Breath is important and, while it is primarily an unconscious activity, you were ingeniously made with the ability to consciously control it.
The ability to control your breath allows you to hack your biology. When you choose how long the inhale and exhale will be you can alter the functioning of your ANS.
Learning to focus on the sensations that accompany the inhale, exhale and any pauses between them will provide you with information about what is happening in your ANS.
Yogis have been using breath work for thousands of years to alter their state of being. Science has finally reached the place where those changes are measurable rather than anecdotal.
It has been scientifically demonstrated that inhalation is associated with the energizing sympathetic branch of the ANS while long exhales activate the parasympathetic rest state. Rhythmic breathing and breath holding can also be used to send signals that influence the functions of the ANS.
2 ways to use breath work to hack your nervous system
1. To change a current state.
If you are very anxious, slow breath cycles with long exhales can help. Research has shown that the switch from parasympathetic (rest/recuperate) to sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) is facilitated by long exhales.
Similarly, if you are finding that you have no energy and are stuck in a freeze state, then fast energizing breath cycles focusing on strong exhale and spinal or arm movements can help to shift you out of freeze and into fight or flight.
The ability to consciously shift out of freeze is a step toward empowerment. While fight or flight is not your desired end state, it is a change from the freeze of depression. It’s a change that can facilitate the move out of feeling stuck.
When the conscious fast breathing is complete, the unconscious ANS will naturally shift toward the desired parasympathetic state. When this happens, it is important to foster the change to rest and recuperate by quietly focusing on sensation and watching your breath regulate. Try putting a hint of a smile on your face while you notice sensation and breath.
2. To learn somatic cues and create new neuro-pathways.
Establishing a regular practice of breath work, allows you to become familiar with the sensations associated with either side of your ANS. If your body habitually favours sympathetic dominance, the practice of shifting to parasympathetic will allow you to lay down new neuro-pathways and create new response options.
For example, you may practice more vigorous breath work to shift your body out of freeze and into action then, stop, close your eyes, breathe freely, and notice sensation as your body regulates itself. As your breathing slows, your parasympathetic nervous system will become more active. The more frequently you practice, the easier it becomes to consciously choose to make the shift.
The nervous system responds just like people do, it wants to be heard before it stops talking. Thus, an effective way of hijacking sympathetic dominance is to let it be expressed and then watch and listen as it shuts off.
When your body lingers in the sympathetic nervous system too often, wellness issues can develop. If on the other hand, you give your body an opportunity to express sympathetic dominance and then listen to the sensations, your body will feel heard and naturally work toward balance by making the shift to parasympathetic.
Why it helps to practice outside of stressful situations
Practising outside of stressful events provides 2 opportunities.
1. To differentiate the sensations between sympathetic and parasympathetic dominance
2. To notice what it feels like to shift states.
You reap the benefits of practice when in daily life, you start to notice the shift to sympathetic dominance. Then, you will know from repetition, how to consciously cultivate the internal felt states that bring you into parasympathetic dominance.
Balance Requires both
Your body has two sides of the ANS because you need both. It’s not that sympathetic is bad and parasympathetic is good. Rather, you need to have both in order to create optimal health and balance.
One great thing about yoga is that it allows you to experience this shift. If you have ever attended a yoga class, you probably have experienced it. In many classes, crazy fast breathing will be followed by sitting and sensing or, long breath holds will be followed by sitting and sensing.
It is super important to stay present after the breathing exercise. Commit to avoiding distraction by looking around or fixing your clothing instead of sitting and sensing. The quiet calm part of the practice is the part where your nervous system gets to learn how to create balance.
Do you resist the shift?
When the nervous system has a sympathetic preference, you might find yourself resisting the shift. This is often what is happening for individuals who say, “Yeah, yoga is not for me I feel too antsy and I just want out of there.” They may be resisting the thing that they need most – the shift to rest and recuperation. The benefits of yoga are often, offered only in terms of muscular strength and flexibility. In reality, the empowering effects of Yoga on the nervous system and psychological well being are equivalent if not superior benefits.
If you’ve stuck around this long, might as well give breath a chance. Try this.
Instructions for BHASTRIKA / Bellows Breath
Bhastrika is equal parts Inhalation and Exhalation at a rate of approximately one breath cycle per second.
Focus the exhalation at the solar plexus at the base of your ribcage. The solar plexus is a huge meeting place of nerves and also the location of Manipura chakra, associated with the power of confidence and will.
Exaggerate the strength of your exhale and feel your diaphragm rise to compress air from your lungs.
Relax your belly for inhalation.
Arms move up with Inhale and down with Exhale.
Hands open with Inhale and close with Exhale
If you have a shoulder impingement move the arms forward and back like pushing something away from you.
Do 3 rounds of Bhastrika with 10-20 breath cycles for each round
Between rounds allow a natural breath rhythm with awareness of sensation for 3-5 breath cycles.
Sit quietly watching your breath for at least 2 minutes after the 3rd round. Remember the quiet time after the breathing is when your nervous system shifts to rest and recuperate.
Begin by finding a comfortable seat with a tall spine. With eyes closed observe the natural flow of your breath.
Bring hands to shoulder height. Knuckles face forward, collar bones broad.
Exhale allowing your diaphragm to rise evenly.
If you would like to see further instruction and more exercises check out my Yoga Therapy page under the link Breathing for Depression.