Tip # 12: Breathe your way back to sanity.
So what happens under severe stress and how does breathing help reduce stress and emotional reactivity?
We have known for a long time that there are three major parts to every person’s brain.
The lowest part is called the brain stem, the primitive brain, or the reptilian brain. In evolution, it was thought to be the first area to develop and it houses the reflexes and instincts for basic survival such as breathing, the drive to eat, procreate, and the fight or flight response. Even fish, snakes, and reptiles have this primitive brain.
The second part is called the mid brain/the limbic system, the emotional/feeling brain, or the mammalian brain. It is where the emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, sadness and also love, joy, and happiness reside. This area is thought to have developed especially so that mothers and fathers would love and protect their young and their species—so they could live in social communities and nurture each other and grow.
All mammals have developed both the primitive and the mammalian brain to some degree, but the feeling brain has developed most in humans.
The third part to develop was the frontal lobe, the neocortex, the logical brain. It is where our intellect and our rational side lie. Although some animals have a small capacity to think and learn, mostly they live in the moment and rely on their instincts to keep them safe. Because of our large logical brain, humans are different. We can think, create, plan, and problem solve looking at several options at one time. Contrary to any computer we have, our brain integrates logic with the emotions and our instincts. Incredible.
But here is the problem. When a severe threat arises the primitive brain (survival) and the emotional brain are immediately engaged and the body sends most of it’s oxygen and blood to those areas and reduces the supply to the thinking part of the brain. In less than a second the body will react with the fight, flight, or freeze response. In post trauma stress or even during severely stressful situations, this lack of thought can have severe consequences. Sometimes we label this response, insanity. Like the Vietnam veteran who shot and maimed his neighbor for life. Or the person who had a melt down and became hysterical when triggered and lost a much needed job.
So how can you bring thought back before it’s too late?
Here is one solution researchers have found: Stand tall and straight with shoulders back (power position) and practice breathing deeply and slowly as soon as you feel stressed. Concentrate on your breathing. The blood suppy and oxygen will be restored to the neocortex, the thinking part of your brain and you will be able to see options once again. As you exhale you can feel your muscles relax. Even though to have a thought takes slightly longer than to trigger an instinct, if you practice this technique of breathing regularly it will become natural and reflexive.
Even children can learn this technique. Here is an example:
My daughter and son-in-law adopted a girl less than three years old, who lived much of her life in an orphanage in China. When she arrived in America she had frequent temper tantrums. Basically they were “meltdowns.” Because of her past experiences, she saw everything that she considered loss of control as a severe threat. Chris, who has been teaching soldiers to deal with severe stress even before they are sent to battle, taught little Shana to breathe deeply as soon as he noticed the stress escalating. He had her look at him and start breathing deeply in rythmn with him. Now at the age of three and a half, all mom and dad have to do is mention to Shana that she is beginning to spiral out of control and she starts to breathe deeply. It works about 90% of the time. Not bad.
Start practising today. Whenever you feel stressed and emotionally reactive, breathe deeply and slowly and concentrate on your breathing. Do this at least three times a day to create a new reflexive pattern that will over time become automatic instead of having to think about it. For people with post trauma stress, you will be freed of the fear of your reactions to triggers that can occur at any time of the day.
Check Chris Balsley for more information and short YouTube videos: http://www.landonwerks.com/