Science of Breath Part 3: Sound

If you’ve followed Part 1 and Part 2 of the Science of Breath series, you are probably beginning to understand that our breath is a complex yet amazing tool for our state of being and overall survival. In Part 1, Mel explains The Polyvagal Theory and that our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has evolved into 3 branches: Socialization (most recent), Mobilization (Sympathetic), and Immobilization (Parasympathetic, most primitive). She outlines how these 3 branches signal different responses depending on perception of safety vs. threat. In Part 2, Erica explains how posture and movement in conjunction with our breath actually triggers the ANS to respond based off of perceived safety or threat. A functional breath, which allows for respiration and stability, triggers safety. A shorter, shallow, chest breath may signal that you are in a stressful state and the body may begin to shut down certain functions (fight/flight/freeze) to prepare for survival. Finally, in Part 3, I will discuss how in addition to breath, movement, and posture; sound and vocalizations also engage specific pathways that provide portals through these different vagal activations.

To be in a present, mindful state, we must be able to turn off defenses. The goal, by design, is that we thrive best when spending 80% of our time on the side of “safety”, and only 20% of our time in the stress or “threat” zone. Mammals (especially humans) cannot survive by themselves. Survival requires mutual help and cooperation. Sound is a major component in connecting to the socialization branch of our vagus nerve.  Sound exercises can help us to return to a place of health, growth, and restoration. You may not even notice, but your ANS is constantly receiving feedback during social engagement via facial expressions, gestures, and prosodic vocalizations (1).  

Vocalizations have been part of religious practices for centuries in the forms of chants and prayer, regardless of the type of religion. When calming a baby, the singing of a mother’s lullaby can be profoundly calming, yet the deeper voice of the father, singing the same lullaby can actually register as “predator” due to the sound’s low frequency. In another example, Dr. Porges, who proposed the Polyvagal Theory, talks about working with patients following trauma and how their bodies’ warning system often gets stuck on high alert. Tone of voice, mouth and body gestures, and music can actually re-establish a sense of safety after a traumatic incident (2). Melodic voices trigger feature detectors that trigger safety. Think of a laboring mom who is in touch with her breath mid-contraction. The tone of her vocalization is smoother and much calmer than a mom in fear, taking short breaths and perhaps yelling out through contractions. The amazing part is, this is not a learned behavior, our nervous system is prepared to respond to these features as they are presented in our environment.

Improving our vagal tone can be practiced and learned through neural exercises.  Some of these exercises are:

  • Singing
  • Pranayama yoga
  • Playing wind instruments
  • Face to face interaction
  • Chanting or prayer
  • Breath work

Intentionally practicing these exercises allows for our breath and diaphragm to function optimally as tools, lowering our heart rate and getting us to a calm state. As explained in this Psychology Today article, “Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing—with a long, slow exhale—is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety.”

The Polyvagal Theory is beautifully complex. By gaining a better understanding of how we have evolved to respond in moments of stress and safety, we can use the tools of breath, posture, movement, and sound to navigate through our vagal pathways. Just as specific tones, facial expressions, and/or gestures can signal us straight into survival mode, it is important we understand that breath, posture, movement, and sound can help facilitate our way to health, growth, and restoration. These tools allow for the magic that is safety, social interaction, play, and expression of feelings during sexual intercouse, labor, and orgasm.

Leah Barto

BIRTHFIT Houston @birthfithouston
  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1868418/ (The Social Engagement System)
  2. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ae81/423342b0b7e2eb2f0d97eb09b5b19c60de54.pdf (Pages 6-8)
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