Imagine with me that you are out on the land with your clan for a hunting expedition. Spear in hand, you enter a clearing, slowly, cautiously, stepping along a line of thickets holding amongst its prickled strands, plump crimson berries. You halt your weary tribe-mates for some much needed nourishment. In short time, you sense a low rumble in the ground and hear the surging sounds of danger. Your eyes narrow focus as a stampede of mastodons breaks into the clearing just a few hundred feet from your thicketed wall. In harm’s way with little time to react, breath quickened, heart racing, you guide your guild to a shallow ravine just in time to avoid the charging herd. You survive another day.
Who lived this today?
Mastodons aside, some in our world do experience a life and death reality every day, but chances are, if you are reading this, it isn’t your reality.
Your reality probably sees kids off to school, lunch in hand, or off to some other urgent task, followed by meetings, emails, texts and phone calls, sometimes piled one on top of another? You dealt with other people emergencies on layered on your own urgencies? Did you forget to eat lunch or go half the day and realize you hadn’t stopped for a drink of water and waited way too long to pee?
And you drank WAY too much coffee.
How do we drink so much coffee while forgetting to eat and drink otherwise?
I want you to look ahead to tomorrow and the rest of the week. I’m guessing it is pretty easy to trip the racing heart trigger that the nomadic you felt in the midst of the mastodon stampede.
But are you in literally in harm’s way? What are the chances of you losing your life by that next stampede of emails?
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
Indulge me for a moment as I share a tool with you, a tool that will take less than the time it takes to do a stroll through Instagram or Facebook.
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This intentional breathing tool is designed to calm and relax, which brings a sense of clarity, improves cognition, attention, retention, and reaction time. Also, stabilizing heart rate and blood pressure.
Physiology of breathing
Breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls the necessary functions of the body that we don’t have to think about to make happen such as digestions, heart beat, and of course, breathing. Two subsystems of the ANS influence the functions of the body. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), also known as the rest and digest system (or the one I prefer, feed and breed), is designed to sustain our lives over the long-term.
On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is known as the fight, freeze or flight system, and is designed to keep us alive in the moment of peril. When the SNS is activated, the amygdala regions in the brain signals the hypothalamus to rush a cocktail of hormones into the bloodstream, including adrenaline, that induce sensory responses to help us stay alive. These include:
- Reduced emotional response
- Reduced pain sensation
- Tunnel vision (reduced peripheral awareness)
- Focused hearing
- Quick energy stores and blood flow to muscles (you’ve probably heard stories of superhuman strength)
- Resources pulled away from digestion
- Reduced cognitive response (when you are under imminent threat, it isn’t really MacGyver time)
Time spent in sympathetic response is very taxing on the body which is one reason most animals in captivity live longer than those in the wild.
How often are you in a situation that truly threatens your life?
For most of us, we can honestly answer that it is very rare to be in a life or death situation. But if we change the question to “how often are you in hectic situations”, we conclude that it is pretty often. (Teachers and air traffic controllers, I’m talking to you!) Living in firefighting mode causes a lower level SNS response which leaks stress hormones into our system. The body response is the same. The nervous system doesn’t know why it does what it does, it just does. It reacts as if we might die. Constantly.
Breathing is a two-way street
The sympathetic nervous system response induces rapid breathing. Think of a scared bunny. This quick thoracic, or chest breathing provides fast oxygen to supply our momentary needs when we are truly in fight or flight mode. We often find ourselves breathing this way when in stressful daily living situations which perpetuates the stress.
Breathing the deep, diaphragmatic, intentional breath is a prescription to actually change your physiological response. Just as you would after running a race that left you challenged for air, deep breaths into the belly will begin to bring the body back into parasympathetic mode. Research has identified an incredible number of health benefits from intentional breathing practice. If the military uses intentional breathing for our soldiers returning as a treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and for training special forces, it must be an incredible technology.
- Calms & Centers
- Reduces anxiety
- Improves cognitive function, such as memory retention, focus & attention, and reaction time
- Regulates blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion
- Increases oxygenation
Intentional breathing is not meditation, but it is the backbone on which meditation is built. So you don’t have to tell anyone you are meditating. I might suggest that as you become more practiced at just breathing with intention, you could find yourself intrigued by the prospect of meditation because just the breathing itself feels incredibly revitalizing.
Start with Twice a Day
If you can find just two times a day to spend 2 to five minutes (less than the time it takes to scroll through Facebook or smoke a cigarette if you are a smoker). Some people choose the morning right after waking to set their day in calm and establish a healthy breathing pattern. At night before bed calms you from the stresses of the day. It primes you for sleep, again, by setting a deep breathing pattern needed for sleep. Take a few minutes to breath before meetings to make sure that you bring the most present and effective you to the meeting. Whether it is a creative meeting, informational meeting, or negotiation, you want you brain to be in top shape. After meetings is beneficial as well, to set you up to carry out and tasks or process any vital information from the exchange. Before or after lunch has tremendous benefits as well in terms of mindful eating so you don’t scarf down meal. It aids digestion, you taste your food, and enjoy the break in the day just a little bit more. Finally, breathing allows some moments of silence. It is in this silence that creativity comes, as do the little signals from your body that tell you how to best look after yourself.
Be good to you. Breath.