Did you know that your body’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) — which is responsible for regulating your bodily functions such as heart rate + digestion — acts solely from your subconscious, except when you access it through breath? Knowing this and how to access your ANS through simple breathing techniques is an extremely important, transformative tool to have in order to manage your stress response and reset your system.
When we breathe deeply, fully, and mindfully, we activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is also known as our “Rest + Digest” phase. We access this part of our nervous system through meditation, mindful breathing, slowing down, and sleeping, along with many other body-awareness practices. This part of our ANS lowers heart rate, regulates digestion + internal bodily functions, and allows us to find calm + internal homeostasis after stressful situations, which are all handled by the Sympathetic Nervous System. This system is known as our “Flight, Flight, Freeze” response, which is there to help us quickly react to stressful and dangerous situations by releasing stress hormones that elevate blood pressure and divert energy to reactionary responses, among other things. When in this mode, our body is tense, alert, releasing stress hormones, and to some degree, always at-the-ready. We feel agitated, even if only on a subconscious level.
The Fight, Flight, Freeze response served you extremely well some few hundred years ago when a giant bear malling your homestead or eating you during a walk to the river was a genuine, realistic worry. But with our slightly outdated physiology that hasn’t been able to quite keep up with the ever-shifting modern world, we forget that there aren’t any massive mammals to worry about. Our anxieties and perceived threats have now shifted and instead found their livelihoods in the never-ending stream of social media, the continual work-grind, and the whisper in the back of our minds telling us to “do more, be more”. Amidst this perpetual perceived chaos, we are constantly being triggered into our Fight, Flight, or Freeze modes. Cortisol is being consistently pumped into our bloodstream — we are constantly under some overarching societal attack and our nervous system is being dramatically taxed. And for what? Anxieties, business, and stress. A threat that doesn’t really exist.
Illustration from Megan Tuohey. Thanks Megan!
Over time, with a sympathetic nervous system that is always on, and a parasympathetic nervous system that is unable to take over and run bodily repairs to rebalance and alleviate anxiety-induced responses, our body and mental wellbeing becomes drastically impacted. Whether it be declining mental health or physical aches, pains, and tension, your body keeps the score (which happens to be a book on this very concept + much more that we highly recommend).
So, how does one bring themselves to balance in times of business and overwhelming stress? Finding your breath in two simple steps is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to rebalance your internal system and reduce/alleviate your anxiety-induced reactions.
- Firstly, we must become aware of the way we’re feeling. Our million miles a second mind-filled chatter, our sweaty hands, our screaming child, our quick, short breath. Without awareness, we can’t know there’s some heightened, amplified thoughts and actions going on in the first place.
- Second, we must actively put our awareness into our breath in order to mindfully adjust it. An easy, effective way to do this is by breathing in for one count and out for two. Our inhale is controlled by our Sympathetic (Fight, Flight, Freeze) response, and our exhale is controlled by our Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest) response. Thus, as long as your exhale is longer than your inhale, you are mindfully activating your slow, rest and digest response.
Ready for more Somatic Insights? Explore more on this topic and other easy, accessible steps you can take to recharge and rebalance your system with 9 Small Ways To Center Yourself.
Let us know your experiences and reactions in the comments.