What does Sound Therapy have to do with breathing?

Looking back on 2020, the theme of this year has been breathing. From the unprecedented wildfires in Australia and California, the COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, ignited by George Floyd’s final words “I can’t breathe”, we were bombarded on all sides with challenges to our breath. We were wearing masks for smoke inhalation—then we were wearing masks for COVID.
So, what does this have to do with Sound Therapy? At first glance you might think, nothing. After all, we don’t breathe with our ears. However, consider that in medical science, the ears, nose and throat come under one speciality—the Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT). In a world of science where fragmentation into specialities is the norm, to have three areas combined must indicate a very closely entwined connection. The nose and throat are definitely involved in breathing. And interestingly, these respiratory organs also respond to Sound Therapy.
One of the surprising but very tangible benefits of Sound Therapy is the way it helps to alleviate chronic blocked ear and sinus disorders. A feeling of chronic blocked ear or pressure in the ears is often due to sub-optimal functioning of the Eustachian tube muscles, which are closely related to the middle ear muscles.
Listeners who report living with chronic sinus disorders have also found that using Sound Therapy helps to alleviate the discomfort and recurrence of the condition. It seems that removing the pressure from the sinus cavities and allowing the fluid to drain out is an extension of the relief of Eustachian tube pressure. When the sinus is unblocked, the process of breathing is definitely eased.

Another part of our anatomy that is strongly influenced by listening is the vagal nerve. This meandering cranial nerve, the longest nerve in the human body, runs all the way from the brain stem to the colon.
We have 100 billion nerve cells in the nervous system, so this network of communication is a massive part of our being. Many of the cranial nerves relate to the ear in some way, and one of the most fascinating of these is the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve, which is named after the wanderer or vagabond.
Charles Darwin first proposed that the vagal nerve is a mechanism for interpreting facial expression, and this theory has been confirmed by recent experiments. (Colzato et al, 2017)
More recent studies by Stephen Porges (2011) and others have confirmed and proven this original hypothesis and greatly extended our understanding of the vagal system.
The vagus nerve controls all of our involuntary functions including breathing, speech, swallowing, heart beat, blood pressure, hearing, taste, circulation, digestion and gut health, bladder movement, orgasms and fertility.
Not only does it have these automated functions, but in doing all this, the vagal system allows us to access parts of the brain responsible for creativity, higher cognition and complex decision making. Healthy functioning of the vagus nerve is impaired by stress, anxiety or lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, proper nutrition and sleep. It is also affected by smoking, drinking, fatigue and work induced stress.
If this essential nerve is not performing as it should, we are more susceptible to a great many conditions including depression, anxiety cardiovascular disorders, hypertension, obesity, seizures, diabetes, digestive disorders, chronic inflammation, kidney malfunction, infertility and even Parkinson’s disease (Yen and Sander, 2017).

There are various natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve include breathing, meditation, exercise, yoga, singing, massage, chanting, laughing, hugging, and cold water on the face. But undoubtedly one of the best — and easiest — ways to activate this nerve in a beneficial way is Sound Therapy.
Good vagal function can lead to the ability to handle difficult situations, stronger relationships, and can enhance love, empathy, a sense of connectedness and mental and physical wellbeing (Porges, 2014).
When we look at the list of benefits of Sound Therapy listening, it can be hard to fathom what a diverse range of benefits there are. Understanding that Sound Therapy effectively enhances positive vagal function goes a long way towards extending our understanding.
Breathing and heart rate are well known as the characteristic signs of the fight or flight response, and indeed of the change in any emotional state. (Chitty, 2018). The breath can be used to alter emotional states, and to alter the heart rate.
Sound Therapy was found to enhance heart rate variability (Warhurst and Kemp, 2012) and has been reported by a number of listeners to reduce heart related conditions such as tachycardia and panic attacks.

We catch our breath when we are shocked, we sob when we are in grief, our breath quickens with excitement, our breath deepens with calm and accelerates with passion. There is hardly an emotion that doesn’t engage the breath. So as Sound Therapy calms and regulates the heart, uplifts the spirit and focuses the mind, it seems inevitable that its deep and integrated impact on our whole being also plays a role in the automatic function of our breath (Brown, R. and Gerbarg, P., 2005).
So whether our breathing is affected by sinus function, emotional strain, or a suppressed autonomic nervous system, it seems likely that Sound Therapy has the potential to help us to breathe more easily. As calming the mind and reducing stress are widely reported results of the therapy, and we know that reduced stress helps to enhance our immunity, we can be assured that this convenient form of stress management is an excellent choice during the difficult times through which the world is currently travelling.


Colzato, L. S., Sellaro, R. and Beste, C., 2017, Darwin revisited: The vagus nerve is a causal element in controlling recognition of others’ emotions, Cortex, Volume 92, PP 95-102.  Downloaded 23.12.2020
Porges, S. 2011. The polyvagal theory: neuropsychological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication and self-regulation, W. W. Norton and Company, New York.
Yen, A.W.C. and Sander, J. W., 2017, Can natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve improve seizure control? Epilepsy & Behaviour 67, 105-110. Downloaded 23.12.2020
Porges, S. W., Bashenova, o., Bal, E., Carlson, N., Sorokin, Y., Heilman, K. J., Cook, E., and Lewis, G. F. 2014. Reducing Auditory Hypersensitivities in Autistic Spectrum Disorder: Preliminary Findings Evaluating the Listening Project Protocol, Frontiers in Pediatrics, 2: 80. Published online 2014 Aug 1. doi: [10.3389/fped.2014.00080]
Chitty, J. 2018. The Triune Autonomic Nervous System Presentation. Downloaded 23.12.2020  John Chitty – The TRIUNE Autonomic Nervous System | Autonomic Nervous System | Vagus Nerve (
Warhurst, L. & Kemp, A. 2012, Listen to your heart: A preliminary investigation of the influence of sound therapy on heart rate variability. Poster presented at the 22nd Australasian Psychophysiology Conference, University of New South Wales, Sydney.
Warhurst, L. 2012. Listen to Your Heart: A Preliminary Investigation of the Influence of Sound Therapy on Heart Rate Variability, Honours Thesis, Psychology Dept, Sydney University.
Brown, R. and Gerbarg, P., 2005, Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety and Depression: part 1 – Neurophysiologic Model. The Journal of Alternate and Complementary Medicine. Volume 11, Number 1. Pp 189-201. Downloaded 23.12.2020

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