Conscious - Focused Breathing A number of people are experiencing high-level stress, and much of it is chronic. We have trouble handling challenges without feeling overwhelmed, or even to be present in our lives (without ruminating on problems - either real or potential). All of this causes great suffering, and sometimes sickness. The good news is that much of this can be mitigated!
Research now proves that engaging in a practice of 60 min a week (6x 10 min, or 3x 20 min), for 8 weeks, will rewire our brains in a way that, over time, weakens the limbic system (fight or flight) and strengthens the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning, problem solving, and where consciousness resides).
The limbic system is what alerts us to stressors, and when it is activated, we feel anxious and overwhelmed; we get tunnel-vision....which generally means we begin to ruminate about feeling badly (about ourselves and/or situations). When this fight or flight stress response is activated, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood our system, our energy rushes to the big muscles in our body, and other systems shut down (such as digestive, immune, reproductive, etc). When chronic, this can lead to depression and disease.
Clearly, it is beneficial to turn on our “rest and digest” response, or the parasympathetic nervous system, as often as possible. When we do this, things feel more calm and manageable. We think more clearly and have a broader perspective. We relate to others more easily (since the vagus nerve is stimulated, which controls our empathy and sense of connectedness). It allows all other systems to come online (digestive, immune, etc) as our blood is oxygenated and fully circulates, and it grows the protective coating on our cellular chromosomes, which improves our health span as we age.
When feeling stressed, we can do a practice that shifts us into the parasympathetic system by focusing on our breathing:
● We begin to take slow, deep breaths, and imagine they are coming directly in and out of our heart center. Our exhales should be approximately twice as long as our inhales (4/8 count, etc).
● We then focus on a positive thought (“this will pass, I am safe”), a reason for being grateful (“I am loved and supported”), or an image that brings joy (our pet greeting us at the door, a fond memory).
● Continue to breathe deeply in and out of the heart space. If we place our hand on our heart, it releases oxytocin (known as the love hormone). When we do this for approximately 2 minutes, we shift the nervous system response, which includes our body chemistry. This improves our mood and our problem-solving skills (as we think more clearly and expand our perspectives). If we make this a regular practice, we can change how our brain is wired.
There are plenty of good resources available - including phone apps- to support a practice of meditation (I use Insight Timer, but Fit Mind is good, etc.). Some are guided for relaxation or to help people sleep, or there are options for using background music with a timer. I also use the Wim Hof Method of guided bubble breathing (via his website and then phone app) which is a more active breathing focus. I love this technique because it gets me into my body and therefore more fully present (versus in my active mind). It also, for a time, changes the PH level of our blood to an alkaline state, which mitigates disease.
All of these “bottom-up” (body focused) approaches have an enormously-helpful impact, since our breathing rate directly affects the chemicals that our body releases, which directly affects our emotions and energy.
The other angle to use is a “top-down” approach, by working with our thinking patterns. The more we think a certain way, the more we will think that way in the future (because neurologically, what fires together wires together). This becomes our default network, and therefore these thoughts become automated.
So, the storylines we tell ourselves are important!!!! They directly affect which nervous system (fight/flight - or - rest/digest) gets activated, so it becomes crucial to create/use positive self-talk (or a go-to mantra) when we are feeling down on ourselves and/or overwhelmed by stress. Otherwise, that negative story line becomes real in the moment, and more consistently real over time.
The work, then, is to increase our awareness of times when we have self-defeating thoughts. When we become aware, we need to:
● Recognize and label it (ie: “I am experiencing anxiety, jealousy, critical judgement”). Be sure to frame it as “I am experiencing” not “I am anxious or I have anxiety/depression”.
● Recognize the rhythm of our breath (since during these times it is usually shallow)...and then to: 1) Deepen breath, focus on our heart center, and lengthen the exhale 2) Focus on a positive feeling, a sense of gratitude, and/or use positive self- talk (“It is totally ok, I am safe and valued, I am fully worthy”, etc)
● Notice if we have tension in the body, and try to relax those places (esp our jaw and face).
Thinking is clearly important, and how we perceive stress makes a difference! If we see our stressors as manageable challenges, we stay in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. If we let our thinking become overwhelmed (ie: “I can’t do this, I’ll never be good at this”, “no one will ever like me”, etc.), we move into the sympathetic system (flight/fight/freeze) and all of the physiological and emotional responses that follow.
Finally, it can be very helpful to journal about your day....what came up, how you responded, and why you are working with these practices (to increase a sense of calm and ease, to feel more confident, to improve relationships, to feel more control, etc). When we remember the “why”, we are more likely to follow through. It may also be helpful to journal about what you like about yourself why you are worthy of an improved life (esp. if you struggle with a strong inner critic).
We all deserve to feel good in our lives....I hope you take the time to do this for yourself!