Believe it or not, how you breathe plays an important role in you think, focus and interpret the world around you.
Today, 80 percent of workers report that their jobs create stress – a concerning fact, given that too much stress can impair work performance, reduce creative thinking and increase irritability and aggression.
Clearly we need easy tools to deal with the stressors of each day. Looking at how you breathe is a great place to start.
WHY DOES BREATHING MATTER?
Every second of each day, there are trillions of cellular processes hard at work inside the body.
Thankfully, most of this is not under our conscious control. For example, you don’t need to remind your lungs to breathe or tell your liver to detoxify last night’s alcohol. Thank goodness!
Mother nature has endowed us with an Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). As the name suggests, our ANS oversees our ‘autonomous’ or automatic bodily functions. We can thank our ANS for digesting food, regulating our heartbeat and much, much more.
Much like a lightswitch, the ANS runs in two different modes. We have the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). You may have heard the SNS referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’, or the PNS known as our ‘rest and digest’ arm
Let’s take a little look at what each mode does:
When activated, the SNS:
– Diverts energy and blood flow into our muscles (priming us for flight),
– Increases our heart rate,
– Stimulates short, sharp, shallow ‘chest’ breathing,
– Makes our palms sweat,
– Mobilises glucose into our bloodstream (in case we need to run or attack),
On the other hand, the PNS:
– Diverts energy and blood into our digestive system,
– Decreases our heart rate (or at least stabilises it to a ‘normal’ level),
– Supports deep, belly breathing,
– Mobilises restorative functions throughout the body and immune system (it is our rest and repair state).
As you can see, both modes serve important survival functions. However, during chronic periods of stress, sometimes we lose balance between the two operating systems.
HOW TO BUILD PARASYMPATHETIC TONE
(i.e. become a calmer person & clearer thinker)
Once upon a time, the SNS was switched on for short amounts of time during acute threats from our environment. However, in the modern world, whilst we may not receive the same danger inputs, many of are living with chronic, low-grade SNS activation. I.e. Stress.
In balance, stress is important and necessary. Short-term stress protects us from danger, signals that something is wrong or out of balance and can be a motivating force to get important things done – in the right dose and at the right time.
Long term stress is unhelpful and even harmful, contributing to:
– Anxiety (both transiently and as a disorder)
– Blood pressure and cardiovascular issues,
– Suppressed immune function,
– Lowered productivity,
– Sleeping issues,
– Increased risk of certain cancers,
– Reduced work performance,
– Metabolic imbalance – for example, stress mobilises glucose (fast-burning fuel) in preference to fat (slow-burning fuel) and is a well-documented factor in weight gain.
Because the ANS is automatic by its very design, much of it is beyond our control. For instance, you can’t tell your heart to change its beat or order your hair to grow faster.
That said, our state of mind clearly has some influence on our Nervous System. An easy example is to notice your heart rate and breathing when you are thinking stressful thoughts.
When you are ruminating on negative thoughts, or ‘feeling stressed’ your breathing will become short, sharp and shallow, directed more towards your upper chest.
When you feel calm, contemplative or clear, your breathing will be long and slow, originating from your diaphragm and lower body.
And this is the part of our nervous system we can influence!
Our brain and body are a two way street. What’s happening in the brain obviously affects your biology but the reverse is also often true.
Therefore, by consciously choosing to slow our breathing down, we signal to the brain that we are safe, thereby switching from SNS stress mode to PNS performance mode.
It’s really that simple.
Over time, if we utilise this practice, we start to build what psychologists refer to as ‘vagal tone’. This refers to how ‘strong’ our PNS system is and how efficiently we switch back into our natural PNS state after the SNS has been activated.
For example, if you slammed on your breaks to avoid being cut off in traffic or had a fight with your spouse, somebody with good vagal tone would return to a state of calm much more readily than a person with low vagal tone. This is not to say that Person A would still have negative feelings about their partner or the traffic incident (this isn’t about ‘pretending’ that bad things exist’. The difference is they are more able to observe their uncomfortable emotions and thoughts in a calm state and deal with problems more effectively.
Simple Strategies To Start Breathing For Better Performance
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to set reminders throughout my day to breathe deeply.
I have four yellow stickers on my kettle, keys, diary and bathroom mirror that prompt me to take four long, slow deep breaths. These need to be particularly long and controlled on the ‘out breath’ and come from your belly. An easy way to do this is to simply place your hand on your lower belly and breathe from that place – your hand should rise on the inhale as your belly expands.
The other activity you could try is to schedule a reminder to breathe deeply into your calendar or phone. I have a reminder in my google calendar for 2pm every day to take 10 long slow deep breaths. And although I often want to talk myself out of doing them, I feel instantly better afterwards. That minute may be the best investment in your entire day!
Other activities that promote vagal tone:
– Diaphragmatic breathing (schedule 20 deep belly breaths on your phone or google calendar and place 4 stickers around the house/office/car to remind you to take four deep breaths when you see them throughout the day),
– Mindfulness practices,
– Yin yoga,
– Tai Chi,
– Stillness through movement,
– Any activity that induces relaxation,
– Cold showers,
– Laughter (reduces cortisol levels),
– Social connection,
– Reduce or avoid caffeine.
I’d love to hear your comments below!