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A Sigh of Relief

Learn how to take control over your nervous system, one breath at a time.

Do you want to control your nervous system? Or do you want your nervous system to control you?

Just like our heart beating, breathing is something we don’t think about doing most of the time and it happens automatically. That’s why they call it the autonomic nervous system…

It’s automatic! Just because breathing is automatic, doesn’t mean we don’t have control over it. How can we control our autonomic nervous system so that it doesn’t control us?

There are 2 different parts of the Autonomic nervous system. There is the Sympathetic; Fight, Flight, Freeze. And the Parasympathetic: Rest, Digest, Heal.

When we are running from a bear, our Fight, Flight, Freeze side of our nervous system will activate, called the Sympathetic Nervous System or SNS. Our pupils and blood vessels will dilate, our blood will rush from our head and gut into our muscles. Our breathing increases, causing our heart rate to increase to meet the demand for oxygen in our cells and our muscles. We will naturally inhale more than we would exhale so that we have more oxygen where we need it. Our adrenal glands will send out cortisol and adrenaline to help us stay alert and in control. This is a beautiful mechanism that our body has to instantaneously rev things up so that we can get out of danger’s way.

What happens when the bear is gone? The breathing will normalize, we will start to blow off more than we inhale because now there is more CO2 in our cells after having used up the O2, — our heart rates will come back down and we will stop sending out so much cortisol and adrenaline from our adrenal glands. The SNS eventually turns off and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and we can Rest, Digest, and Heal again. Now, what would happen if the bear never left? All of these mechanisms would continue on for a long time. Months, years, even decades sometimes. Until your nervous system gets to a point where it says, I know I need to stay on guard, but I’m just exhausted, and I don’t have what it takes anymore. You can still be jumpy at every sound and noise and alert, but the real stamina isn’t what it used to be because you have been on guard for so long without a real break.

What is there wasn’t any bear at all? Instead, it was your boss, your spouse, your co-worker, sibling, parent, in-law, neighbor, child, news, pandemic, virus outbreak, due date, to-do list, unpaid bills, that caused your breathing and heart rate to increase? Caused you switch on the SNS and push all of your blood to your extremities and away from your brain and your gut? When do those bears go away? Do they ever go away? If not, how can we live like that day in and day out?

The answer is, we can’t. Well, we can’t for too long. Eventually, the constant lack of blood flow and oxygen will take a toll on the tissues of your vital organs. You may start to get stomach aches, or bloating after eating, then it turns to headaches and insomnia, then you find out that you cannot conceive. Maybe down the line, you start to get dementia or heart problems. These chronic conditions are not created overnight and they are not created for no reason at all. They happen because of years and decades of an activated SNS and an inhibited PNS.

So what can we do about it? Well, this is one of the things that I focus on in my practice because this is truly where healing has to happen. Healing cannot happen when we are stuck in SNS dominance. there are many ways to break this cycle and we can actually use our autonomic nervous system to help us. One of my favorite phrases is “You can’t change the mind with the mind.” If you are frustrated with your boss when you leave the office and are driving home just thinking of all the things you would say to him and replaying in your head how the conversation would go and making yourself more irritated as you go, you are really firing up the SNS. If you were to start to tell yourself, ok just calm down and let it go, even reading this now, you may laugh, like yea right that is going to work to calm me down. But what if you started to pay attention to your breath. Even increase the length of your breath. Instead of taking short fast breaths. Take long slow breaths. How would you feel then?

By taking deeper and slower breaths you are pushing the diaphragm down, and making more space for the heart so the heart literally gets bigger. With a bigger heart, you are able to pump more blood so it can beat slower. The slower beating sends signals to the brain to inhibit the release of stimulating hormones and neurotransmitters, and the body can calm down and shift into a parasympathetic state. Now it is able to rest and digest and heal. Now you are able to get out of your head and into your body. This is not something that you need to work on and learn and study and practice. This is something that is hardwired into your body. We just need to learn how to use it. Here are 3 simple steps that you can take today to transition your nervous system immediately and take back control of your life!

Step 1: Quickly get yourself out of fight or flight and into rest and digest These are the breaths to use in the moment when you need to quickly change your heightened state.

  • Physiologic sigh

    • Inhale through your mouth twice quickly – sigh out of your mouth once long

    • Repeat until you feel your nervous system shift and your heartbeat slow down.

      • 1-10 times

Exhale longer than you inhale

  • Inhale for 3 counts, exhale for 6 counts

Step 2: Increase energy when needing to get motivated

These are breaths to use when you are having a hard time getting going Inhale longer than you exhale

  • Inhale for 6 counts and exhale for 3 counts

Breath of fire

  • Inhale and exhale quickly and forcefully through your nose

Step 3: Daily practice to maintain Autonomic Nervous system control These are breaths to use on a regular basis as a practice or a habit. The more you can practice in a calm state, the easier it will be to control your breath as an immediate defense.

Pranic breathing

  • Inhale for 6 counts, hold for 3 counts, exhale for 6 counts hold for 3 counts

  • Do this for 5 to 10 minutes as a daily routine in order to help regulate your heart rate and heart rate variability

Alternating nostril breathing

  • Get into a comfortable seated position and take a normal beep breath or 2

  • With the thumb of your left hand occlude the left nostril – inhale through your right nostril

  • With the pointer finger of your left hand occlude your right nostril and release your left nostril to breathe out of your left nostril

  • Leave your finger where it is and breath in through your left nostril

  • Occlude the left nostril again with your thumb and breath out through your right nostril

  • Repeat with each nostril 10 times

Deep breathing

  • In a comfortable position take a full, deep breath through your nose – allowing your chest to expand and belly to rise

  • Hold breath for 6 counts

  • Exhale slowly through your nose

  • Repeat 10 times

There are many different breathing exercises and practices.. Explore what feels right to you to control your breathing and control your life!

-Dr. Heidi Albete

Naturopathic Doctor

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