Research and studies show that rhythmic, controlled breathing positively influences our minds and wellbeing. However, scientists don’t know enough about how the breathing method affect the nervous system in people with a spinal cord injury who have a more about a disrupted nervous system.
Our autonomic nervous system consists of two major divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. How does the complicated system work in our bodies? The University of Sydney has begun the SMART trial for people with spinal cord injuries.
How our autonomic nervous system works
Imagine for a minute as Sally turns on her television to the 6:30 news. Her mouth is slightly open to release a silent gasp as she watches images of orange plumes over a city turned to debris, along with bomb blasts and sirens. Then, coupled with the warnings of inflation, she is interrupted by a sound from her mobile phone. Her Facebook friends post their expensive adventures abroad, graduation, and a cute little puppy. Alone in her wheelchair, feelings of uncertainty and isolation, doom and failure start to haunt her. She questions if her life could be better, like her friends, and worries about how she would manage her next rental rate rise.
Sally’s fight, flight or freeze response comes from that part of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. It can be felt like waves of mild anxiety or panic, coming, and going throughout the day. The system disrupts our breathing pattern, spikes up the heart rate, sabotages our attention, and ability to think clearly. It can also put us at arms with others and even get encoded as a complex pattern of thinking and responses. However, we need it for our survival; to help us activate when action is necessary, such as fleeing from a lion.
Luckily, our nervous system has a deactivation system: the parasympathetic nervous system. When finally disconnecting from the television & phone, Sally looks at the sunset and notices its complex shades of colours. She feels the cool air through her nostrils, then smells the scent of a baked dinner coming from next door. Her mouth starts to drool, and then Sally begins thinking about her dinner. Stimulation of her parasympathetic nervous system slows her breath rate. At the same time, it stimulates her salivary glands and awakens her senses to different colours, textures, and smells. These are part of the “rest and digest” responses from the parasympathetic nervous system. By stimulating this system, we may find our creativity comes alive; our thinking becomes more ordered. Unfortunately, many of these parts of our nervous system responses are not under our conscious control.
“An open heart is an open mind.”
– 14th Dalai Lama, winner of Nobel Peace Prize.
Current controlled breathing research for the nervous system in people with SCI
The quest to maintain healthy nervous system responses and good health has been ongoing for centuries. Scientists now know that certain types of rhythmic, controlled breathing can change heart rate patterns. It also influences our thinking and body functioning. With lots of research on rhythmic breathing, scientists have the confidence to research how it affects the behaviour of the nervous system in those with a disrupted nervous system – like people living with a spinal cord injury.
The University of Sydney’s Spinal Cord Injury Mind and HeART (SMART) Trial team has been assessing how controlled rhythmic breathing influences nervous system activity and wellbeing in those with spinal cord injury. One of the most beneficial aspects of rhythmic breathing may be the stabilisation of blood pressure, reducing the incidence of life-threatening conditions like autonomic dysreflexia, which can lead to cardiac arrest or stroke. Meanwhile, other beneficial effects may be the reduction of anxiety, depression, dizziness, fatigue, and pain.
If you are interested in participating in the SMART trial or wish to learn more, don’t hesitate to contact the SMART trial team on mobile (0420 378 157) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Moreover, you can also directly access and fill out a 30-second form, and someone from the SMART study team will contact you.
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