Falling Asleep: Breathing’s effect on our Central Nervous System
Can deep breathing actually help us fall asleep? The research is in, and the answer is a resounding YES! But it’s not the breathing that makes us fall asleep, it’s the effect the breathing has on our central nervous system that makes us dose off.
What is our Central Nervous System?
The central nervous system consists primarily of the brain and the spinal cord. It combines information from the whole body and coordinates activity across the whole organism.
The CNS controls our thoughts, movements, emotions, and desires. Physically, it controls our breathing, heart rate, body temperature, the release of certain hormones, and more.
Breathing as a response to stress
Breathing, along with its main function of supplying the body with oxygen, can be used as one of our body’s built-in mechanisms to help manage our fight, flight, or freeze response.
When we’re upset, agitated, angry, or in trauma, people around might respond by recommending that we take deep breaths to calm down.
If you’ve just stepped away from a confrontation that nearly turned into a fight, you might hear the advice ‘calm down, take a deep breath.’
This is because the action of breathing deeply sends messages to the fear centers in the brain that you are safe, which in turn, switches on our parasympathetic response, the response responsible for rest and digestion.
The parasympathetic nervous system is more commonly referred to as ‘rest and digest’. As the name suggests, we should have a parasympathetic response before falling asleep and resting. We should also have this response in the body when we need to digest food.
We actually need to be encouraging our body into the parasympathetic response all throughout the day. And we can do this by using a built-in mechanism, our breath.
Using the breath to identify stress
We can influence our response to situations using the breath, like calming down from the near-fight by breathing deeply. The breath can also inform us as to how we’re responding to a situation.
When we’re stressed, our body has a few physical responses. Our heart rate accelerates, we might sweat, we might get a dry mouth, our breath becomes short, shallow, and rapid…
When we’re calm, our physical response is very different. Our heart rate slows down. Our digestive system is able to function, and our breath is long, deep, and slow.
If we’re able to become more aware of our breath, we can use that information to learn more about how we’re responding to a situation. If we’re at work and notice the breath is short and shallow, maybe it’s time to take a couple of deep breaths to encourage the parasympathetic response to activate.
We are good at the things we do often…
…and if the body is well-practiced at being in fight, flight, or freeze mode, this is where the body can get stuck in stress.
It’s a vicious cycle where the stress builds and builds, with more and more activations of the sympathetic response and fewer and fewer activations of the parasympathetic response. The body gets very comfortable with the sympathetic response, and not so great at the parasympathetic response.
This is why frequently activating the parasympathetic response is so beneficial. The more frequently and consistently we practice calming techniques, the better the body becomes at responding to them.
Using the breath to fall asleep
Now that we understand why breathing helps us fall asleep, let’s take a look at one way you can practice deep breathing in bed.
Lay on your back, bringing your feet wider than your hips and relaxing the legs. Place the left hand on your stomach and the right hand on your chest over your heart. Get nice and comfortable, and once you feel settled, try to invite total stillness into the body.
Relax all the muscles in the body, if the teeth are pressed together separate the teeth and let the lips slightly part to relax the jaw. You can soften the gaze or close the eyes for this, keeping the muscles around the eyes relaxed.
Start to turn your focus to your breath. You can start deepening your breaths, taking long inhales, and long exhales. Keep as much ease in the breath as possible, do not overexert yourself.
You might notice your left and right hand rising and falling as you breathe deeply. If you get distracted and start to get lost in thought, you can bring your attention back to the movement in your hands as you continue breathing deeply.
Keep the ease in the breath. If it helps to keep the focus, you can use a mental count for each breath, inhaling for the count of 3, exhaling for the count of 3 or 4. Try to find a count that feels comfortable for you, always extending the exhales slightly longer than the inhales.
You can practice this deep, mindful breathing for as long as you would like, at least 60 seconds. Ideally, we should be aiming to fall asleep between 10-20 minutes from when we start the ‘falling asleep’ process. So you can practice this technique right up until you dose off.
We want to be frequently encouraging the body into the parasympathetic response. The more we do this, the better we manage stress, the better we sleep, and the better we digest our food! We can encourage the body into the parasympathetic response by practicing deep breathing. To encourage the body into a sleepy state, try practicing deep breathing for at least 60 seconds in bed.
Author Bio: Gabie Lazareff is a certified health and yoga coach and experienced wellness author. Writing for Somnus Therapy, the online sleep therapy platform, Gabie is educating readers about the importance of sleep not just to survive, but to thrive.