Nothing connects us to our bodies better than conscious breathing. Empirically it can easily be established that a breathing pattern affects our thoughts and feelings. But isn’t it great that we can validate this experience with scientific findings. Our breathing is controlled by the mind and can control the mind – the main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, is innervated by the phrenic nerve (“phren” means “mind” in Greek). The vagus nerve, that can be activated by diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the 12 cranial nerves (stemming from the cranium, the brain), and the limbic system, which is engaged when we breathe through the nose, sits near the brain stem. Isn’t it all curious?
I’d like to explore the significance of the limbic system and its link to stress management.
The limbic system is a set of brain structures located on top of the brainstem, under the cortex. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions – fear and anger, joy and satisfaction. The limbic system influences both the peripheral nervous system and the endocrine system.
The two largest structure of the limbic system is the amygdala – responsible for the survival emotions of fear and pleasure, and hippocampus – helps us form and retain memories.
The limbic system gathers and filters information and stimuli from our environment and responds to this information. It assigns emotional significance to everything we encounter and reacts to this information as safe or unsafe.
There are many things that can alter or inhibit the normal functioning of the limbic system including infections, trauma, chemical or mold exposure, inflammation, chronic stress, and immune system dysfunction. When the limbic system is not functioning properly, it can become overactive or hypersensitive. This causes an inappropriate activation of the immune, endocrine, and autonomic nervous systems.
The limbic system gathers information from the environment through sensory information. As you’ve experienced firsthand many times, your senses can alter your emotional state rapidly. For example, a pleasurable meal can make you feel comforted, and very loud noises can make you feel anxious.
Ever wonder why certain smells conjure up memories and even physical feelings so vividly? Our sense of smell is unique compared to our other senses (such as taste, sight and hearing) because it bypasses parts of the brain that other types of sensory information often cannot. Because of this, smells can often cause immediate and strong emotional reactions based on memories. Smells can bring us back to past events within milliseconds, making us feel a certain way based on past events, whether we realize why we’re suddenly feeling that way or not.
Essential oils, for example, can have dramatic effects on limbic function and how you feel. And because various essential oils have different properties on the biochemistry in the body as well as on emotions, I highly recommending exploring this avenue of healing, through essential oils.
There is another huge benefit of substituting chemical-laden deodorants and perfumes with essential oils- based products: your hormonal health will improve greatly over time as you will eliminate hormone-disrupting components found in artificial fragrances.
To sum up, for effective anxiety and stress management it is important to be able to move away from the bothersome thoughts and feelings towards calmer, chatter-free mind and more positive emotions, which, in their turn, invoke thoughts. Using natural aromatic substances can speed up the process of switching from negativity to a more positive disposition. Essential oils are a great tool on the healthy living path and I encourage you to give them a go!