From fight or flight to rest and digest: How to reset your nervous system with the breath

Simple breath techniques to relieve stress and promote longevity.

Simple breath techniques to relieve stress and promote longevity

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If we observe an animal being chased by a predator, after the long pursuit, if the animal runs free, we may notice their body physically quiver to reset their nervous system. The ability to literally "shake it off" is a natural response that some animals have to relieve stress and trauma, and rebalance their nervous system.

Although our most imminent dangers may be impending deadlines, road rage, financial insecurity or taxing schedules, our nervous system may still interpret our anxiety, stress and fear as a response to a potential life threat. The impact of this stressor over time may be detrimental to our long-term health, because we don't reset our nervous system, remaining in fight or flight. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, accelerating our adrenal glands, cortisol levels and hormonal balance, which can affect our aging process.

Breathing deeply, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. Long, deep breaths can also manage our stress responses to help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat and shallow chest breathing. These responses can directly impact our physical, mental and emotional health, and longevity.

The yogic science of breathing, known as pranayama in the ancient language of Sanskrit, is a technique of breathing and breath retention that is practiced to increase the vitality, longevity and life-force of the body. Pranayama practices include the observation, control, expansion, retention and manipulation of the breath. Pranayama is a mechanism that can help increase memory, improve circulation and promote oxygenation of the blood. A recent study showed that "the physical and cognitive benefits associated with yoga and mindfulness may be due to mechanisms including pranayama and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system." This activation prompts the body to rest, rejuvenate and regenerate efficiently, allowing the system to detoxify and return to homeostasis.

If the body is in fight or flight, then chances are that you may need a system reset. Here are some simple breathing techniques to help you relax, maintain optimal health, and sustain longevity.

For each practice, begin by sitting in a comfortable position either on a chair, a meditation cushion, or yoga mat on the floor. If you choose, you may lie down comfortably on a yoga mat or a firm surface. To stay awake, it is recommended that you do not lie down on a bed.

Before you start

Ensure that when you breathe in, your abdomen (not just the chest) fills with air and expands, and that when you breathe out the abdomen contracts and becomes empty. If your system is under stress or anxiety, you may observe that when you inhale, the abdomen moves inward and when you exhale the abdomen moves outward. This is the reverse action of correct breathing and should be modified to inhale, expand the abdomen, exhale, contract the abdomen. All practices should be done on an empty stomach.

Observing the breath and Sama-Vritti

Meditation practices like mindfulness meditation or vipassana (which means to see things as they really are, or clear seeing in the ancient Buddhist language of Pāli) are both practices that include the observation of the breath. Focused attention on the breath fixates the mind to one point of concentration, and helps to ease the distraction of a wandering mind or multiple thoughts that can increase the heart rate or create anxiety and stress.

For this practice, simply begin by noticing your breath as you inhale and exhale through the nose. Do not change the rhythm, just observe its natural movement. Feel the sensation or temperature of the breath in the nostrils. Then, after 5 complete breaths, begin to inhale for a long count of 4 and exhale for a long count of 4. Sama-vritti or an equal breath ratio, engages the parasympathetic nervous system and creates a relaxation response. This simple technique relieves stress, anxiety or agitation. Once the initial ratio has been comfortably established, increase the ratio count to 6 and then 8.

The complete breath: Dirgha Pranayama

Dirgha, meaning long or to lengthen from the ancient language of Sanskrit, is a pranayama that is designed to fill all three chambers of the lungs to facilitate deep oxygenation and remove toxicity from the blood. It eliminates shallow chest breathing and cultivates a deeper and longer breathing pattern which can aid in digestion, circulation and stress relief.

Although this pranayama is also known as a three-part-breath, the inhalation and exhalation should be practiced as one continuous and uniform complete breath.

Place both palms on the abdomen with fingers pointing toward the navel. Steadily through the nostrils, slowly take a deep breath in, beginning to fill the abdomen with air. The abdomen should inflate like a balloon.

As you move your palms up to the rib cage, begin to fill the middle chest, expanding the rib cage or thoracic region.

Then place the palms onto the upper chest, filling the chest, expanding the clavicle region, and lifting the collar bones. The lower part of the abdomen should be slightly drawn in, when the chest is full.

Retain the breath a few seconds if possible.

Slowly exhale through the nostrils, placing the open palms from the chest down to the torso, then down to the abdomen, exhaling each section in one slow continuous movement. The abdomen should slightly draw in, lifting upward as you exhale.  

Once you have fully exhaled, suspend or pause  the breath for a few seconds before beginning the next inhalation.

Repeat 9 times.

If you feel light headed, try lying down for this one practice. Discontinue if dizziness or lightheadedness persists.

Alternate nostril breathing: Nadi shodhana

Nadi is the sanskrit word for river or subtle channel, and shodhana is the sanskrit word meaning to cleanse or to purify. Nadi shodhana, commonly referred to as alternate nostril breathing, is a profound cleansing and balancing breath that brings homeostasis to the nervous system. It is best to practice this in the morning after you wake up to bring balance to your day. This breath technique can also be done before a yoga-asana practice or meditation.

For this practice, you will require the right hand only:

  • Place your left hand down onto your left knee or along side of the body in a comfortable resting position.
  • On the right hand, bend the index finger and middle finger down towards your palm
  • Exhale through both nostrils
  • Close the right nostril with your thumb and inhale slowly through the left nostril
  • Close the left nostril with your ring and little finger, and exhale slowly through the right nostril
  • Slowly inhale through the right nostril, close the right nostril and exhale slowly through the left nostril

This is considered one round. Repeat 9 rounds.

Ensure that the in-breath and out-breath are equal in ratio or sama-vritti 1:1.

If you have a fever or medical condition, contact your doctor before practicing these breath techniques.


Nicole Mahabir is the Founder and Director of JAI Wellness, a platform for health education, mindful living and wellbeing. For the past 10 years, Nicole has lead professional certified programs, teaching Nutrition, Meditation, Ayurveda, Yoga Therapy and Natural Anti-Ageing Beauty Regimes. When she isn't teaching, Nicole creates integrated, sustainable health protocols for her busy clients and leads corporate and wellness retreats. Follow Nicole on Instagram @jaiwellness or on her website, jaiwellness.com.