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The Short Version: Use Rhythmic breathing (inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of four) to override the stress response and positively influence how you see the world.

The Full Version, with explanations:

When we get angry, fearful, or begin to experience any other extreme emotion, our breathing cycle changes, and as it does, our body and mind undergo rapid physiological transformations. Yet, conversely, if we manage to steady ourselves for just a moment, during those turbulent emotional states, and we pause to take a slow, deep breath, everything begins to settle down as our mind drifts back to a calm state and our body releases tension.

These observations on breathing cycles and how changing the rhythm of our breath can instantly generate changes in our mental, emotional and physical states of being aren’t anything new. They’ve been understood and practiced for millennia, by the yogis of India and Tibet, the Toaist masters of China, and the Shamans of the Americas, as well as many other ancient cultures. It was from the Indian and Chinese cultures that specific breath control practices made their way into the Japanese warrior traditions. In fact, these practices are so powerful that they’re used not only by martial artists, but by the modern military to help soldiers control their physiological responses during high stress situations, situations that would otherwise be so overwhelming, the soldiers wouldn’t be able to function.

THE BASIC PRINCIPLE

The basic principle of breath control says that rapid, shallow breathing excites the nervous system and activates its sympathetic branch. This is the branch of the nervous system responsible for pushing the body into overdrive when the fight or flight response is triggered by our body’s response to stress. Whereas slow, deep breathing has the opposite effect, switching on the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. This part of the nervous system has a relaxing effect on the body and mind, effectively overriding the sympathetic branch and brings the body into a state of rest and recuperation, promoting long-term health. In an ideal world, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system would regulate the body for 99.9% of our lives, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most of us. In fact, for most of us, and especially those of us living hectic and stressful lives, the sympathetic branch is active 50% of the time. This means we’re spending half of our lives in a stressful state of being, a state of being that causes all sorts of physical, mental and emotional problems, and one that warps our view of the world.

The good news is that using the basic principle described above, we can take control of our nervous system, which means we now have two very simple yet powerful methods of changing the way we perceive and react to the world around us, the other method involves changing our postural habits as I discussed in my last post.

Before describing the specific breathing techniques used to change the activity of the nervous system, let’s take a moment to look at the stress response, as this is the root cause of sympathetic nervous system activation, and the silent enemy that every modern warrior must learn to overcome.

THE STRESS RESPONSE

The stress response is the body and mind’s physiological reaction to a perceived threat. That threat can be real or imagined; the body doesn’t know the difference. This means, for example, if you see a snake in a dimly lit room, you’ll experience the stress response, and if you’re particularly scared of snakes, that response will increase in severity. Now, if you manage to overcome your fear and make it across the room to turn on the light, you’ll realise that there was no snake; it was just a harmless piece of rope all along. The point of this is that your body and mind still respond to a threat whether it’s real or imagined. What’s important to remember with this is that we, more often than not, imagine a threat that doesn’t really exist. So the majority of time we spend in a state of stress is the result of our imagination, our misinterpretation of the world around us. So, how often should we experience the stress response? The answer is a startling 0.1% of our lives, and to be honest, that’s a very generous estimation. Realistically, it should probably be 0.001%. But let’s not worry about that, instead let’s look at how we come to this conclusion.

Think about this for a moment. How many times per day do you face a life-threatening situation? Unless you work in the emergency services or are actively fighting in a war zone, the answer is probably 0. So let’s change the question to, how many times in the last month can you remember facing a life-threatening situation? Let’s be generous with our estimations and say once. Maybe you were nearly knocked off your bike on the way to work. So the next question is how long did that life-threatening situation last. Taking the bike example, we’ll say 10 seconds. So about 10 seconds of your life, per month, is spent facing life-threatening situations. That’s 2 minutes per year, and if the average person lives for 74 years, that adds up to 2 hours 28 minutes per lifetime.

At this point you’ve probably begun to see the disparity between the time we spend experiencing the stress response and the actual amount of time we should be experiencing it. The difference is mind-boggling. So the question must be asked: Why do we spend so much time unnecessarily experiencing the stress response? Well, in short, it all boils down to mortality and how we’re conditioned to relate everything we do back to our own survival.

CATALYST OF THE STRESS RESPONSE

Every living being on the planet is hard wired to survive. Even the amoeba, a single celled organism, when prodded by a sharp point, will move away from the source of discomfort. As humans, we come into this world preprogrammed with this overwhelming urge to survive. This is an instinct that has been etched into our neural circuitry since we first set foot on the Earth.

The stress response is initiated every time we perceive a threat to our survival. So anything that could cause us to die is regarded as a threat. What’s interesting about this is how we label things as threatening. Our brains are amazingly irrational when it comes to threats to our survival. For instance, we’ll go into survival mode if we get knocked off our bike by a car. That’s a pretty good, rational reason. But why do we go into survival mode when our boss shouts at us? Think of it like this. You make a mistake in work, your boss shouts at you, so immediately the thought of being fired comes to mind. This links to another thought that says if I get fired, I won’t be able to support my self or my family. That leads to a new thought where we think if I can’t support my self or my family, we won’t have a place to live, we won’t have any food to eat and we’ll die. Although this is irrational, it’s the way our brain makes connections, which is what allows us to label things as important or not in our lives. So most of us see having a job as important.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at what happens to the body and mind when the stress response is initiated.

AFTERMATH OF THE STRESS RESPONSE

When the stress response is triggered, whether it’s by an imaginary snake, a close encounter with death while riding our bike, or from our boss shouting at us, the same physiological responses are set in motion every time. Those responses are as follows:

  • The brain releases cortisol which stimulates the adrenal glands
  • The adrenal glands release adrenalin
  • Adrenalin widens the airways to help oxygenate the blood stream
  • The heart rate and blood pressure rise
  • Muscles become engorged with oxygenated blood redirected from the internal organs (increasing our strength)
  • Blood flow increases in the emotional centres of the brain and decreases in the frontal lobes (prompting us to respond without thinking)

Although all of these changes in our body and mind make us faster, stronger and more sensitive to our surroundings, which are all excellent aids to our survival when we’re in real danger of dying, they’re not so good for us when there isn’t any real threat to our life.

Over time, the stress response becomes a chronic disease-generating problem. Eventually it wears down our internal organs, suppresses our immune system, and basically makes us stupid by shutting down the rational centres of our brain.

Apart from making us generally unwell and unable to function properly, stress also hampers our ability to cope with even the smallest challenges in life. For the modern warrior, this is a serious problem. If a warrior is unable to remain calm and think clearly, his/her ability to respond to demanding situations is severely disrupted. It’s moments like this that can cost a warrior his/her life. So how do we deal with such moments? We breathe.

LEARN TO BREATHE

Ok, so we don’t have to learn how to breathe, obviously. We’re already doing that. But we do need to learn to consciously breathe in a specific way. By slowing our breathing rate and making it more uniform and steady, we can quickly reverse the negative effects of the stress response. Breathing in this way acts as a type of switch, turning on the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system and bringing the body and mind back to a calm and balanced state of being.

The rhythm we should aim to use is a ratio of 4:4 inhalation to exhalation. You can do this by slowly counting to four as you inhale, and again as you exhale. If you’re out for a walk and you realise you’re stressing out about something, you can count your foot-steps. Once you try this for a few days, switching on your parasympathetic nervous system becomes second nature and the world becomes a brighter easier place to live in.

There are many other breathing techniques, some of which I’ll explore in the future, but until then, give this one a go.

For another interesting blog post on breathing as a performance enhancer, have a look here.