It's all about resiliency: Breathe!
This is the fourth in a series of articles discussing various aspects of stress and how we can learn to bounce back from stressful occurrences.
Activate your brake
Did you know that you have a relaxation mechanism in your body? It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system (henceforth called the "brake") and you can consciously activate it. By activating this brake, you allow yourself to achieve a calmer, more coherent state wherein you can make supportive choices for yourself.
The fastest (but not the only) way to activate the brake is through breathing. There is truth to the old adage, "take a deep breath and calm down." Except one deep breath won’t do it for us. Because we are such consummate thinkers, it takes the brain one to three minutes to get respond to our breathing.
There are many simple but highly effective breathing techniques to help achieve emotional balance. There is only one catch here - you have to practice them if they’re going to be any help to you when you need them!
So if you’re not happy with how you handle certain situations then make a commitment to yourself that you will practice, practice, and practice some more. The more you practice, then the quicker you are able to neutralise the reactions which so commonly sweep us away, leading us into emotional turmoil. Practicing also resets our baseline so that we can deal more effectively in situations that previously would have triggered an emotional meltdown.
Activating the brake sends signals to various organs, especially the heart and the brain. Research has shown that the heart (yes the heart!) is in constant communication with the brain about our emotional state. It does this through something called heart rate variability.
It’s a symphony
The heart doesn’t beat like a metronome. For example, if you have a heart rate of 60 beats per minute, your heart is not beating once per second. Between every heartbeat there are varying time intervals. It is a symphony of beats, slowing and speeding up depending upon the needs of the body.
When we are experiencing emotions such calmness, gratitude, or compassion then the beat to beat interval changes are more regular and gradual. When we experience emotions such as anger, frustration or fear then the beat to beat interval changes are irregular and erratic. Our breathing becomes automatically shallower during these emotions. This is also a signal to the brain that we’re in the flight, fight or freeze mode.
These beat to beat changes send signals to the brain, telling it about our emotional state. If you don’t want to have that anger consuming you then you can consciously choose to activate the brake by changing your breathing pattern. When the heart senses that the brake is activated this in turn is reflected by a changing beat to beat pattern which in turn signals the brain that you are calmer.
The Institute of HeartMath, based in California has been doing research into these beat to beat patterns for over 20 years. They developed a computer programme that provides feedback to the user on how effective they are at applying the brake.
The following image is an actual recording using this programme, of a participant in one of my presentations. You can dramatically see the beat to beat changes both fear and deepening their breathing had upon their heart rate.
The individual had 14 pairs of eyes staring at them, whilst not really knowing what was going to happen. Afterwards, this person admitted to being somewhat apprehensive and wanting to perform well (mild performance anxiety). This person is a practiced yoga practitioner and knows how to engage abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing.
When asked to slow and deepen their breathing the effect was almost immediate. This is represented by the smooth, almost sinus wave-like pattern seen in the middle of the recording. This pattern changes once again, when asked to visualise a situation which I knew was stressful to this person. We had agreed upon this ahead of time.
Even though the situation was not imminent and was only imagined, it had a dramatic effect on the beat to beat changes, which once again became erratic.
It was only a thought!
The biggest lesson that you can learn from this is that it was only a thought that did this. And some of us are doing this to ourselves non-stop. Reliving events out of our past and creating fiction for the future. Mark Twain is quoted as saying: "I’ve been through some terrible things in life, some of which actually happened." Does it sound familiar to any of you?
Thoughts cause a physiological response in our bodies. Start becoming aware of your thoughts. Are they supporting you or not? Are they draining energy or giving you energy? As you become aware, start applying your breathing to calm yourself, to re-energise yourself.
You have to breathe anyway - just learn to do it more effectively!