Have you ever found yourself reacting to stress impulsively, with anger, frustration or other less-than-healthy emotions?
Or have you found yourself freezing up, unable to cope when faced with a difficult situation?
Or perhaps you have reacted to stress by removing yourself from the situation, leaving the issue unresolved?
Maybe, when faced with stressful situations, just take a breath.
Our bodies are designed to deal with stress by invoking the ‘flight, fight or freeze response, otherwise known as the ‘stress response’ or the ‘amygdala hijack.’ This evolutionary mechanism activates our autonomous nervous system and arms our bodies with adrenaline or cortisol to ‘support’ us rise to challenges which come our way.
This stress response works really well in times of physical danger. It helps us when we are under attack (say from a wild animal) to choose instinctively whether we attack, run away, cajole, or freeze to overcome being hurt. But this doesn’t work so well in relation to our thoughts. For example, when an email comes in from a colleague who we don’t get along with so well, may automatically set off cortisol or adrenaline in our system with the expectation we might get attacked in the email, only to find our response was not warranted. Or if we responded in an attacking way in the moment, our response might not be so wise and may harm our reputation.
In today’s world, we are facing potentially more stressful situations in our modern, fast paced world far more frequently than our ancestors. These can range from traffic issues, day to day work problems to the more serious stressors caused by relationship, health or financial problems.
When we move into a heightened stressed state – a build up of continuous stress can cause health problems including a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression and more. This is because consistent stress leads to breathing at a shallow level when we are operating from the primal, fear driven part of the brain – also known as the amygdala.
This means we are not getting enough oxygen into the body and mind. And it also means we’ve moved out of the executive, clear-thinking, longer-term decision making part of the brain – also known as the pre-frontal cortex – into the fear, short-sighted part of the amygdala brain.
However, there is one part of our autonomous nervous system we can control: and this is our breath. When faced with stress, if we stop for a moment and focus on our breath, we can slow down our stress response and regain control of our body and mind so we can react in a healthier way.
Medical studies have shown a clear link between breathing and our ability to deal with stress. A slow, deep, rhythmic breath pattern can strengthen the respiratory system and soothe the nervous system. Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn lowers our heart rate, amongst other things.
Simply put: when we breathe deeply, it sends a message to our brain to calm down, relax and also move ourselves out of the amygdala, primal part of our brain into the prefrontal cortex which is clearer, longer-term thinking part of our mind.
By shifting the body into a different, more relaxed state - deep breathing can help us pause and consider things from a different perspective. This allows us to react more thoughtfully and less impulsively – in ways that are healthier and more productive.
Breathing exercises have been found to lower stress, and to increase creative problem solving among leaders. Military officers use tactical breathing techniques to help them regain control of their bodies and minds during critical situations. And a simple breathing technique known as ‘box breathing’ can assist us the next time you are faced with a stressful situation.
Here’s how you can use this technique:
Listen to Jeanine and Marie discuss the benefits of breathing and the science behind it on the Empower World Coaching and Leadership Podcast Episode 101
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