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How to manage your breath under stress to regain calm and serenity? by Nathalie Bergeron-Duval

12. 01. 2021 - By Nirvana Fitness

When I heard of Nirvana in the summer of 2019, I liked the movements and the music, I knew about the strength of mental positive intentions, but what decided me into becoming a Nirvana instructor was the breathing techniques, and more specifically the breathing out on 4, 8 and 12 counts, and the practice of empty lung apnea.

I already knew about the benefits of these breathing practices on stress, but I had not yet written this article based on medical data on the biochemistry of stress: little is known about the brutal collapse of CO2 in our blood, and the brain trap stress creates in our body.

Nirvana exercises offers a better oxygenation of our lungs and muscles, but also helps to maintain a sufficient level of CO2 in our blood, which leads to the flow state. I’m happy to contribute to share this information with the Nirvana community because it enhances even more the benefits of a regular Nirvana practice...

If your curiosity is aroused please read the article I wrote under the supervision of Doctor Christian Bouchot during the first confinement last April, and published in SanteManager, an online magazine for the managers of health institutions in France. 

As I write these lines in confinement, the medical world, hospital in particular is subject to intense stress due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This article complements the one I wrote about laughter and stress last November; it can be useful for all caregivers, but also for everyone, subject to the stress of illness, the anxieties linked to economic and societal uncertainties or quite simply to the stress of inaction due to confinement.

I am a sophrologist and practitioner of laughter yoga, and I train privately in other disciplines based on respiratory techniques, like Nirvana. Little is known about the medical explanations of the effects of breath on the mechanism of stress, and I would like to share them with as many persons as possible. This article is based in part on my professional training as a sophrologist, and for the medical data on the biochemistry of stress on the information transmitted by Doctor Christian Bouchot (general practitioner, physiotherapist and trainer at the EFOM Foundation in Boris Dolto ); himself interested in the thesis of Doctor Laury McLaughlin of the University of Andrews in Michigan who first described the biochemical mechanism at work (McLaughlin L., Breathing Evaluation and retraining in Manual therapy. JBMT 2009 13: 276-282 ).

How does our body react when it is under stress?

Let’s take a look at how the body works under stress. Our autonomous nervous system works in ON / OFF mode, much like the accelerator and brake of our cars:

  • in ON mode, the sympathetic adrenergic nervous system *(sympathetic nerve) commands an accelerating effect in the body; in a few seconds the whole organism is impacted in view of the innate response to stress: fleeing or attacking. Hormonal secretion of adrenaline (from the adrenals) and cortisone (release of glucose from the liver), dilation of the pupils and bronchi, cessation of salivation, cardiac acceleration, sharp senses, cessation of all non-priority functions such as digestion or reproduction,… this state of hyper-vigilance with strong mobilization of energy is accompanied by unconscious adrenergic hyperventilation* with general vasoconstriction* which prepares for effort. Without flight, without combat, without muscular work or energy expenditure … the mechanism becomes deleterious for the organism.
  • in OFF mode, the cholinergic parasympathetic nervous system* (vagus nerve) on the contrary controls a brake effect on the body; under the effect of the hormonal secretion of endorphin, and the role of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, the organism is put at rest and relaxes with effects contrary to the previous ones: closing of the pupils, constriction of the bronchi, slowing of the heart, acceleration of digestion,… and a general vasodilation* very well perceived in states of meditative calm. Our sedentary living conditions without physical effort create an inconsistency between the alert given by the cerebrospinal nervous system (central and peripheral) when faced with the perception of danger and the innate response to stress controlled by the sympathetic autonomic nervous system; this dysfunction linked to vasoconstriction* results in somatization. We will come back to this in a little more detail.

Why is stress a brain trap?

In a stressful situation, the person is subjected to, what is called, an unconscious adrenergic hyperventilation mechanism: he always increases his respiratory rate (hyperventilation), with variable intensity, and without realizing it. Contrary to what one might think, hyperventilation does not bring additional oxygen into the arterial blood because it is already completely saturated with oxygen (at +/- 98%).

On the other hand, hyperventilation causes the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) to drop in just a few seconds, it is the mechanism of hypocapnia*. As CO2 is by nature acidic, if it decreases, it disturbs the balance of the hydrogen potential or blood pH of the organism: it is no longer neutral, we then speak of respiratory alkalosis*, which leads almost instantaneously a contraction of the blood vessels or general vasoconstriction essential for physical exertion.

  • During physical exertion (for example if you play sports after stress), the mechanism is perfectly suited because muscle contraction results in the production of CO2; this leads to secondary acidosis* which, in turn, dilates the blood vessels. The blood pH returns to neutral and the body's balance is restored.
  • If there is no physical effort, no immediate muscular contraction of effort follows to provide CO2 quickly and in abundance. The subject imbalances his blood pH which becomes alkaline*. Alkalosis closes blood vessels, which considerably reduces blood flow, the consequences of which can alter, to varying degrees depending on the individual, the normal functioning of the brain, then of the heart, muscles, digestive tract and intra and extra metabolism cellular. In this specific case, we are talking about the pathological process of somatization.

What are the effects of stress somatization?

  • Somatization in the brain [1]: concentration disturbances, disturbances of consciousness, headache, vertigo without nystagmus, visual disturbances, see syncope.
  • Somatization in the heart [2 ] [5 ] : angina, atypical pain, arrhythmia.
  • Somatization at the neuronal level [2 ] [3 ][4 ] : paranesthesia, tone disorders, muscle pain, digestive disorders, coldness of extremities (up to Raynaud's syndrome).
  • Somatization at the biological level of general vasoconstriction [2 ] : atypical pain, feelings of stiffness, myalgia.

The body will experience the disorders typical of so-called "stressed" subjects such as difficulty concentrating, cardiac acceleration or tachycardia, stomach aches, motor diarrhea without fever, muscle stiffness, tone disorders, migraine headaches of vascular origin, panic attacks … In the brain, cerebral flow can decrease by half during hyperventilation. At the level of the heart, statistically we know that stress considerably increases the risk of heart attack. If the stress persists or becomes recurrent without any corrective action being taken, these disorders may become permanent.

As we have understood, the problem is therefore not the lack of oxygen that we believe we perceive when under stress but on the contrary a lack of CO2, due to the unconscious hyperventilation which eliminates it.

Paradoxically, the more the subject thinks that he "lacks air”, the more he rushes into unconscious hyperventilation; he does not realize that he is entering the hypocapnia trap a little more. The brain spends its time interpreting reality to make sense of it. Often it is effective, in this case it is wrong. The brain lured by its anxiety imposes a strategy error: hyperventilation.

How to get out of the stress trap?

We can voluntarily access normocapnia* which conserves more CO2 and which keeps our arteries "open" (vasodilation) by the breath, which is both unconscious and automatic but also conscious and voluntary. In my sophrology practice to combat the deleterious effects of stress or a strong emotion, I train people to breathe out longer, with gradual introduction of pauses in the residual volume, ie a retention time of "empty" lungs (which can be as long as the expiration time).

A regular practice of Nirvana also allows us to access naturally normocapnia through 3 channels: physical exercises which quickly provide CO2 in our blood ; breathing out on count 4, 8 and 12, and the retention time of "empty" lungs in the oxygenation check before and after a Nirvana session.

A regular practice is necessary to become comfortable and to feel the effects: feeling of inner calm and concentration, with a slow heart rate, a neutral blood pH and an organism properly perfused into normocapnia.

Tip:"Empty” lung apneas are harmless but not very natural and require training to become comfortable; to make it easier, the trick is to swallow your saliva, several times, because it is impossible to breathe in and swallow at the same time. It is also easier to prolong the expiration by emitting a sound in the throat (which yogis do with the "Ujjayi sound” which slows down exhalation by precise control of the vocal cords).

What do scientific studies say about the importance of working on your breathing?

The research of Doctor Laury McLaughin, at the origin of this discovery, led to the manufacture of a small device: the "capnograph*"; it allows a person to view, in real time, their CO2 level and their heart rate by wearing a nasal cannula and a heart rate monitor * connected to a computer screen.

For those who need to "see to believe", the demonstration is clear: by breathing out slowly and staying on pause with "empty" lungs, the CO2 level curve rises, while it eventually crosses the curve of the heart which slows down (heart coherence).

For sophrologists, yogis or other practitioners of meditation, trained in breathing techniques and in feeling, the proof is given by the feelings of calm and great cerebral availability.

Note: It is interesting to see that today, comes to corroborate the interest of ancestral practices: the song, certain breaths of yoga, the "OOMMM” of the Buddhists, the recitation on a breath of "Salutation of Mary" of Christians, the evening prayer of Muslims… In all these practices, ventilation is slow, predominantly diaphragmatic, with long exhalations and sometimes breaks in apnea with "empty" lungs (in the volume of respiratory reserve).

Laughing or crying naturally creates long exhalations shaken by abdominal spasms which jerk the diaphragm and lead us to take "empty" lung pauses. In general, we do indeed feel physically well after laughing or even crying for a long time... Breath is today a gateway to rehabilitation of the autonomic nervous system based on medical evidence. So, with or without a capnograph, let’s exhale for as long as we can!

As confinements seem to become a rule worldwide, let’s practice even more to fight stress!

Article written by Nirvana instructor Nathalie Bergeron-Duval

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Dive deeper:
[1] Ito H, Ibaraki M, Kanno I, fukuda H, Miura S. Changes in arterial fraction of human cerebral blood volume during hypercapnia and hypocapnia measured by positron emission tomography. J Cerebral blood flow & Metab 2005; 852-857
[2 ] Hyperventilation syndrome (M.Prosper and C.Dubreuil) CTAR Paris 1998
[3 ] Seyal M, Mul B, Gage B, increased exitability of human corticospinal system with hyperventilation. Electroencephalography and clinical neurophysiology, 1998; 109; 263-267.
[4 ] Gusafsson U, Sojberg F, Lewis DH, Thoborg P, The effect of hypocapnia on skeletal muscle microcirculatory blood flow, oxygenation and PH.Int J Microcirc: Clin Exp 1993; 12: 131-141
[5 ] Rutherford jj, Cutton-Brock Th, Parkes MJ, Hypocapnia reduce the T wave of the electrocardiogram in normal human subjects. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2005; 289: R 148-R155 

Practical glossary to understand:
  • Respiratory acidosis: acid-base balance disorder due to an excess of carbon dioxide in the blood; the pH slowly approaches 7.38, it is then compensated by other mechanisms. Reverse phenomenon of alkalosis.
  • Adrenaline: hormone secreted by the adrenal glands to allow the body to react in a few seconds through a series of chain reactions to stress or for physical activity.
  • Respiratory alkalosis: disorder of the acid-base balance due to an excess of pulmonary elimination of carbon dioxide; the pH is dangerously close to 7.42. Reverse phenomenon of acidosis.
  • Capnia: arterial pressure of carbon dioxide (CO2) in arterial blood. Two possibilities
  1. Normocapnia: normal concentration of carbon dioxide pressure in the bloodstream. Normocapnia ensures ventilation of the various organs, and their functioning, as well as psychic faculties, at the level of reasoning and behavior.
  2. Hypocapnia: decrease in partial pressure of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood (less than 35mmHg). 
  • Capnograph: small portable device for measuring heart rate and CO2 level during breathing; it is connected to a nasal cannula and a heart rate monitor connected to a computer screen.
  • Heart rate monitor: device showing measures of heart rate.
  • CO2: carbon dioxide (previously called carbonic acid) produced in particular during the combustion of energetic materials, the fermentation of liquids, the respiration of living beings, etc.
  • Cortisone: hormone that takes over from adrenaline to give energy in the form of sugar to the body under stress. Its cortisol derivative plays an essential role in regulating body functions: sugar metabolism, immune defenses and inflammation.
  • Dopamine: neurotransmitter which allows communication within the nervous system; dopamine activates the reward / reinforcement system by causing the sensation of pleasure. It plays a role in motivation and risk taking.
  • Endorphin: natural hormone secreted by the brain (pituitary gland) that relieves pain, increases pleasure and sometimes causes a feeling of euphoria.
  • Unconscious hyperventilation predominantly in the chest: "high” inspiration with rapid and massive elimination of CO2 by a subject under stress; is part of the stress-conditioned reflex resulting from natural selection defined by Hans Selye.
  • Hypocapnia: decrease in partial pressure of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood (less than 35mmHg).
  • Intra and extra cellular metabolism: all the chemical and biological transformations that take place in the body.
  • Normocapnia: normal concentration of carbon dioxide pressure in the bloodstream. Normocapnia ensures ventilation of the various organs, and their functioning, as well as psychic faculties, at the level of reasoning and behavior.
  • pH: pH measures the decreasing acidity (from 1 to 7), the neutrality (7) or the increasing alkalinity (from 7 to 14) of a substance. In biochemistry 7 is slightly different from the neutral pH in the blood which oscillates between 7.38 and 7.42. Any output above (alkalosis) or below (acidosis) these figures results in a disturbance.
  • Breathing: gas exchange which allows the absorption of oxygen necessary for the cells and the rejection of carbon dioxide. It takes place at the level of the lungs which swell during inspiration to bring in oxygen and relax during exhalation to reject carbon dioxide. This physiological process is managed by the autonomic nervous system. This increases or decreases the number of exhalation and inspiration depending on needs and effort.
  • Serotonin: amino substance produced by certain cells of the intestine and the brain, and neurotransmitter involved in the management of moods and associated with the state of happiness when it is at a balanced rate, pushing the individual to maintain a situation which is favorable to him.
  • Adrenergic sympathetic nervous system: part of the autonomic (or vegetative) nervous system responsible for the body's response to stress to prepare for physical action.
  • Cholinergic parasympathetic nervous system: part of the autonomic (or vegetative) nervous system responsible for preparing the body for rest and relaxation.
  • Vasoconstriction: reduction in the diameter of blood vessels; it normally occurs as an immediate response to damage to a vessel to stop the bleeding.
  • Vasodilation: increase in the diameter of blood vessels.
  • Expiratory reserve volume (ERV): amount of gas that can still be expelled by forced expiration, after normal expiration. This corresponds to 0.750L in women and 1.300 L in men.

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