Author: Michael Decaire
Mindfulness meditation, relaxation therapy, and even some martial arts begin and end with taking a controlled, slow, and deep breath. What's the big deal?
There is a long list of research regarding what the breath does for the body (beyond just allowing us to exist). Of therapeutic interest are the links that breath has with many aspects of our physiological stress response system. When we get stressed out we become increasingly driven by our "fight or flight" system which is driven by our sympathetic nervous system. This response increases our blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate in order to protect us from threat.
This was a pretty useful evolutionary construct when we were dodging lions and other large meat eaters tens of thousands of years ago. These days the system is rarely that helpful and, even in times of threat, a system that we can control will usually lead to a better outcome (the US military is doing some really cool experiments hacking into this system through breath and meditation).
While we may not necessarily be able to bypass the sympathetic nervous system immediately, we can learn to take control of these systems fairly quickly and somewhat unconsciously through practice. One of the key aspects of this is breathing. Slow and deep breaths have been shown to stimulate an opposing "para"sympathetic nervous system reaction. This is the one that calms us down.
Think of the sympathetic system as the gas pedal where we decide to race away or crash into a threat at high speed. The parasympathetic system is the breaks where we slow down for a second and act in a smart way to solve our problems.
Essentially, when we are being driven by our sympathetic system we are functioning at a pretty basic and not especially strategic part of our brain (the amygdala to be more precise). This system derails our ability to self-direct ourselves and usually means we act on instinct. If we can bypass that system we can leverage our more evolutionary advanced frontal lobes. This part of our brain allows us to better inhibit our instincts and move forward in a smart and self-directed way.
Another example, ever gotten into an argument or fight with someone and said something you did not mean that did not resolve your issue at all and perhaps made things even worse for you? Have you walked away, calmed down, and realized how you could of approached the situation differently and better conveyed your thoughts?
That first system is the sympathetic the second is the parasympathetic, which we can give a boost too by taking a second to breath slowly and deeply. So take some old advice. Relax a bit and take a deep breath. Then decide what to do.
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