Feeling a bit like you’ve just got too much going on at once? Too much pressure? Too many people making demands on your time or your peace of mind? And feeling like you just can’t think straight, get perspective, work out where to start?
And possibly, as a result of this feeling, saying and doing things that ‘aren’t you’. Maybe you’re normally relatively calm and organised, but at times you just feel like all this stress is ‘doing your head in’.
Well, maybe it’s not just about you. Maybe you’re not ‘losing it’, going crazy or whatever. In fact this is just what our brains do when we end up in the ‘stress response’ (also often known as the fight-flight response).
I personally find it quite reassuring to understand what happens when our brains flick into these particular unhelpful patterns when we are stressed. Partly I find it helpful because I can remind myself I’m not going crazy, this is exactly how my brain is designed to operate under stress. And that thought reminds me that focussing on actions that will help my physiology shift from ‘stressed out / freaking out’ to ‘relaxed and focussed’ is the most useful thing to do. But I’m running ahead … first, here are some ideas that help to explain in simple terms why our minds do what they do when we are stressed.
We’re not as ‘modern’ as we think
In the same way that it is a natural reflex for our bodies to flick into ‘fight-flight’ physiology any time we perceive we are facing a threat (whether that is a real physical threat or a perceived threat, perhaps something that has us feel that our security or wellbeing is under threat) our mind can flick automatically into a ‘fight-flight’ style of thinking. The ‘fight-flight’ reflex is a very primitive reflex which we have in common with even the most ancient animals.
Unfortunately our minds and bodies are not great at telling the difference between real, physical threats and everyday worries or anxieties. So most of us flick into the fight-flight response without even knowing we are doing it. We are then caught in a physiology that would equip us well for a brawl, or to survive in a dangerous world, as if we were surrounded by sabre-tooth tigers.
The ‘logical’ brain goes off-line and ‘emotion brain’ jumps into the driver’s seat
Ironically, the more ‘modern’ or highly evolved, rational, problem-solving part of our brain (the neo-cortex) is less activated when we switch into the fight-flight response, and instead the more ancient ‘emotion brain’ (limbic system) takes over the ‘driver’s seat’. So when we are facing stressors and most need our problem-solving ability, we have least access to it if the ‘fight-flight’ response has been activated. And you may have noticed evidence that the ‘emotion brain’ is more activated in times of greater stress – you may find yourself feeling more emotional than usual, perhaps more prone to tearfulness or more ‘short-fused’ than you would normally be, and you may find that you take things more personally than usual.
In addition, the limbic system responds in a very fast, very ‘black or white’, or ‘all or nothing’ way. You might find that when you are feeling particularly stressed that you find yourself saying things to yourself like “This is a disaster” (as opposed to “This is quite a big setback”), or using ‘all or nothing language’ such as “I will never be able to …”, or “They always do this to me”.
And when I say that we see things as very ‘black or white’ I guess I’m really saying we see things as very black – we are not in a state to notice what is going well or the many good things in our lives. We are in a negative mind-set because of the fight-flight response. This leads to us to a bit of a ‘siege mentality’ – we can feel that we are surrounded by people who are mean and/or stupid.
Looking out for danger
When we are in ‘stress physiology’ we become ‘hypervigilant – we are on the look-out for what is wrong or what could go wrong. This makes perfect sense given that your body and mind are acting as if you are living in a very dangerous world. In a genuinely dangerous world, we need to be on the look-out for danger. But our tendency to flick into this stress physiology, and the hypervigilance that goes with it when faced with every-day ongoing stress, is very unhelpful.
As you can see, we are hard-wired to think negatively when we are caught in the fight-flight response. Another way of describing ‘hypervigilance would be to say that we are in a hyper ‘judging’ mode – we are filtering for whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and mostly when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology we are only able to see the ‘bad’) and we are paying particular attention to the size of the gap between how we perceive things to be and how we perceive they ‘should’ be or we wish they would be.
The ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ Physiology
This is the opposite to the ‘fight-flight’ physiology. When we are relaxed, we much more easily and automatically notice the good things in our lives. In this physiology we don’t have to give ourselves a ‘pep talk’ to think positively, we are naturally aware of the good things in our lives. We are also much more compassionate, and much less likely to judge – either others or ourselves. In this physiology we also have full access to our pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that can problem-solve, be rational, be creative, and get perspective on life. Our concentration is better and our memory works better. All-in-all this physiology has a lot going for it!
Adopting a ‘bottom up’ approach
There is growing acceptance within psychology today that we can’t easily ‘think’ or ‘work’ our way out of this dynamic. For many people trying to be ‘rational’ in our thinking when we are caught in stress and anxiety, and trying to be ‘positive’ doesn’t work when we are trying to get out of this nasty cycle. In fact, we can end up feeling worse because we think we ‘should’ be able to ‘just be rational’ or ‘just be positive’ and try as we might, this ability eludes us. And this leads to more self-judgment and more of that nasty vicious cycle.
Instead of trying harder to think our way out of this physiology, a more effective approach is to ‘use our bodies to change our minds’. It is helpful to recognise that we are in the stress physiology, remind ourselves that we are hard-wired to think in this negative way when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology, and then choose to take action to change our physiology. So give yourself a break. Trying to stop yourself thinking in this negative way when you are in the ‘stress’ physiology is like trying to rake water up hill. Once we take action which moves us into a more ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, then we can ‘go upstairs’ and change the way we are thinking.
‘Bridges’ into the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology
There are many ‘bridges’ that help us to move from ‘stressed brain’ to ‘relaxed and focused brain’. Physical exercise is really helpful, as is spending time with people who care about us or whose company helps to uplift us. Spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, or being in nature can also be very helpful, as can music, art or other creative activities. Play is very potent also.
But perhaps the most direct and powerful is diaphragmatic breathing.
Learning to gain greater control over your physiology through diaphragmatic breathing will pay dividends. Imagine how much more calm, enjoyable and productive life would be if you could easily access the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology, where your brain is more efficient and you can easily get things into perspective. So if you haven’t already, do explore the simple but powerful process of diaphragmatic breathing. And make sure you use it as often as you need it to, to help you keep things in perspective and to prevent you from visiting that ‘it’s doing my head in’ territory that detracts so significantly from our quality of life.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
Can you relate to any of this – have you noticed some of these thought patterns when you’ve been stressed. And have you been annoyed with yourself for being ‘so negative’ or ‘so grumpy’ but not been able to get out of that frame of mind. Or maybe you’ve had friends who’ve given you that oh so helpful (not) advice ‘Don’t be so negative’. I’d love to hear about your experiences of this ‘stress dynamic’.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.
Just Breathe … Diaphragmatically – It’s Life Changing
In my opinion, diaphragmatic breathing is the number one, must learn, must-do strategy for dealing with stress and anxiety. Just breathing diaphragmatically is life changing.
Why Is Diaphragmatic Breathing So Powerful For Stress Management?
There are many physiological changes that occur in our bodies when we go into the ‘fight-flight’ or stress response, and most of them occur automatically, completely outside of our conscious control. But breathing is one of the few that we can consciously regulate. We can’t tell our heart-rate to slow down or our blood pressure to reduce (unless we are deeply experienced in self-hypnosis or meditation), but we can choose to change our breathing pattern. And if we can start to breathe as if we are deeply relaxed, this can be like the beginning of a domino effect – it can trigger changes in all the other aspects of our physiology, for example slowing down our heart rate, blood pressure and slowing down our racing mind.
When we are caught in the fight-flight response our breathing is fast and shallow. Why? Because this is the breathing pattern required to get the maximum amount of oxygen into our blood stream to give our arms and legs more power for fighting or running. And the muscles that make this type of breathing happen are our upper chest muscles rather than our diaphragm.
The fight-flight response is controlled through the sympathetic nervous system. To reverse all the changes that occur when we go into the fight-flight response, and move from fight-flight physiology to the preferable ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. And this is what initiates the ‘domino effect’ resulting in reduced heart-rate, worst-case scenario thinking, panic etc.
Just Take Some Deep Breaths … – Or Not!
Firstly to dispel a very common myth – taking big breaths does not help in calming ourselves down – in fact it can have exactly the opposite effect. Instead we want to take ‘‘lower’ breaths – tummy breaths. So if we think of taking deep breaths as taking big breaths, this is not helpful. However if you think of ‘deep’ as being like ‘deep in the ocean’ or diving your breath deep down, low in your tummy, this is helpful. The aim is to breathe with our diaphragms not with our chest muscles. When we are doing this correctly, when we breathe in, our tummies expand, and when we breathe out our tummies contract.
A good way to tell what is happening with your breathing is to find a way to notice whether your tummy expands when you breathe in. See this youtube link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmi6sNG9ttM) for a simple demonstration of the tummy clearly rising on the in-breath. Another way to observe whether you are getting correct tummy movement is, with very loose arm and shoulder muscles, to very lightly hold your hands on your tummy with your finger-tips just touching when you are at the end of the out breath. When you breathe in you will see your finger-tips part.
I strongly recommend getting some training from a health professional if you have trouble breathing with your diaphragm in this way, or if you find that your tummy sucks in when you breathe in. Some physiotherapists specialize in breathing retraining, and this coaching is a very worthwhile investment. In New Zealand this help may be available free through your local DHB – ask your G.P. for a referral.
Four Key Pointers
To breathe in a way that helps to calm our nervous system and move us out of a sympathetic nervous system dominated physiology there are four main things we are aiming for
1) To breathe with our diaphragms, low in our tummies, as already mentioned
2) To have our exhale being approximately twice as long as our inhale. One way to achieve this is to breathe out through slightly pursed lips, as if we are cooling a cup of coffee – this reduces the gap for the air to escape from our lungs so slows down the exhale. Or we can count, aiming for an exhale approximately twice as long as the inhale. Do not force the breath out. Imagine that you are letting the breath fall out of you, and that it is a real ‘letting go’ kind of breath.
3) We aim to slow down our breathing rate, to 5 or 6 breaths per minute. The chances are, you will slow down your overall breathing rate when you begin to focus on slowing down your exhale. Slowing the exhale tends to lead to a feeling of ‘letting go’’ of stress, and as we start to feel this feeling, we tend to slow down our breathing rate overall. Don’t aim for this breathing rate of 5 -6 breaths per minute first off, just gradually slow your breathing down a little by a little, and it will happen more naturally.
4) It is important to breathe in through your nose. Sensors in our nostrils help to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. Also breathing in through the nose results in filtering and moisturizing the air going into our lungs. If you have a very congested nose, experiment with breathing in with stretched lips (aka a smile). That often seems to open space in spite of the congestion. Unfortunately there is a catch 22 with regard to congestion – the more stressed we are, the more likely we are to suffer from sinus and hayfever and hence be congested. It is important to find a way to break this cycle, and diaphragmatic breathing is an important weapon in your arsenal so don’t give up too easily on the nose breathing challenge.
Proving The Link Between Breathing and The Stress Response
If you have any doubt that breathing style is directly associated with feeling stressed, anxious or panicked, you could prove the link to yourself once and for all by deliberately hyperventilating, and by doing this you will be able to induce a full-blown panic attack. I do not recommend this! However, it is a strategy that is often suggested as part of treatment for Panic Attacks to help patients understand that panic attacks are within their conscious control. In other words, fast, high, shallow breathing is not just a symptom of stress, anxiety and panic attacks. It can also be a cause. This is a vicious cycle that you can learn to interrupt, simply by learning calm, healthy diaphragmatic breathing.
Three Ways To Use Diaphragmatic Breathing
1. As First Aid, or a sticking plaster, to deal with acute symptoms of stress when they arise, or in preparation for a particular stressful event such as a public speaking engagement or a difficult meeting. This would involve spending several minutes deliberately engaging in low, slow diaphragmatic breathing to settle down your nervous system when you are aware that you are experiencing stress symptoms.
2. As a preventive treatment, kind of like taking Vitamin C regularly to prevent getting a cold. This would involve spending 10 – 20 minutes once or twice a day deliberately practicing low, slow diaphragmatic breathing –– in the same way that one might spend 10 – 20 minutes a day meditating to help calm and regulate the nervous system.
When we are in a chronic state of fight-flight physiology, our ‘base-line’ arousal level is likely to creep up and up, over time, bringing with it more severe signs and symptoms of stress. On top of our normal ‘base-line’ of arousal, we also inevitably experience various ‘stress peaks’’ that are a normal part of everyday modern life, whether it is a difficult situation at work, an argument with a partner, an unexpected bill etc. If we start the day from a high base-line of stress, the additional stressors of day can push us into a zone of unhelpful stress, overwhelm or anxiety.
By regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing we can gradually lower our ‘base-line’ and with it reduce the signs and symptoms of stress.
3. As your default breathing pattern. This is the overall goal. During relatively sedentary activities e.g. desk work, reading, watching T.V., cooking a meal at home, having a conversation with a friend etc. it is ideal to aim for about 12 – 16 breaths per minute. This is faster than what you might aim for when you are practicing diaphragmatic breathing specifically to calm down your nervous system.
So, Remember – Just Breathe
Regularly check-in with yourself. How am I breathing right now? Am I breathing with my chest or diaphragm? Am I breathing in through my nose? Is my out-breath longer than my in-breath. Pause and take a moment to get centred and get breathing … diaphragmatically. The benefits of doing this are immense.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you):
I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
Do you have personal experience of the difference that breathing diaphragmatically can make. If so, how did you come to discover this? How and when do you use diaphragmatic breathing? Do you still find you fall back into unhealthy breathing patterns from time-to-time and have to refocus on re-establishing a good diaphragmatic breath pattern? (Confession time – I do.) Do you know of any good youtube clips or web resources on diaphragmatic breathing that others might find helpful – if so, please share.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.