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Deep-dive #4: Stress relief to-go

Picture this: we are stuck in traffic, the driver in front of us is trying to merge his truck into a space that is clearly too small, and we are running late for an important meeting. Our stress levels are through the roof, and our sanity is in danger. What if there was a magic tool we could use right now, without any extra equipment, no apps, and no training? A tool that we carry with us everywhere we go: Our breathing! Let’s dive into how easy it is to tap into the power of mindful breathing, even when life gets chaotic.

We breathe all day, every day, and yet, how often do we stop and appreciate this fantastic, ever-present tool? Not enough. 20,000: This is the approximate number of breaths we take throughout the day. By the time we turn 80, we will have taken around 600 million breaths - enough to fill 100 (or more) hot air balloons! It all starts with the moment we take our first breath. It is one of the most significant events in our life. As babies, we are still developing our nervous systems, and our breathing patterns are influenced by our environment and by our caregivers. Our transition through adolescence brings further changes: Hormonal shifts and growth spurts can affect breathing patterns temporarily. By the time we reach adulthood, our respiratory system is fully developed, supporting various physical needs.

On the one hand, our breathing is both stable and dependable: Inhaling and exhaling follow a rhythmic pattern, like waves as they rise and fall to the shore. On the other hand, it is extremely flexible: Its rhythm constantly adapts to changing conditions, whether we are laughing, speaking, eating, or when emotions arise. And they play a special role. Because while breathing is of course vital for our survival, our breathing patterns are closely linked to our emotional state.

How does it work?

There is a “grey eminence” in our organism that is invisible to the eye and operates in the background like a ghostly conductor: Our autonomic nervous system (ANS). It controls all involuntary physiological functions, e.g., our heart rate, our digestion, our sight, our blood pressure, our body temperature, our metabolism, and our breathing. Our ANS is divided in two main branches that conspire to regulate our daily lives without us even noticing: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). 

The SNS is our “inner protector,” also known as our “fight or flight" responder. It prepares our body to respond to stress and kicks into action when danger looms or when we are in a stressful situation. When our SNS is activated, our heart beats faster, our breathing becomes shallow, and our muscles tense up. These are all signs that the sympathetic nervous system has taken over, and that our “internal gladiator” is preparing to fight or flee.

Its counterpart, the PNS, is our “inner calmer,” also known as our "rest and digest" helper. It promotes relaxation and recovery and ensures that we regenerate. When the parasympathetic system is active, our heart rate slows down, our breathing becomes deeper, and our body can relax. The PNS helps us recharge our energy reserves. It is our “inner gladiator” during his downtime, resting and recuperating after the heat of battle, when it is time to heal.

Of all our bodily reactions, our breath is our only chance to consciously influence our autonomic nervous system and thus our body's reactions to stress: When we breathe deeply and slowly, we can consciously activate our parasympathetic nervous system. This helps us calm down, reduce stress, and think more clearly. Deep breathing signals to our brain that everything is okay and there is no immediate danger. Breathing faster and shallower activates our sympathetic nervous system, putting our body on high alert. This can be useful when we need to react quickly.

Concentrating and slowing down the breath can therefore be a quick remedy for worry and excessive thinking. Have you noticed how difficult it is to worry and at the same time concentrate fully on the rhythm and depth of our breath? Our brain is trying to conserve energy (see deep-dive #1). The simple act of focusing on our breathing can effectively block out intrusive, stress-inducing thoughts (see deep-dive #3). We consciously choose to utilize our brain's energy saving measure for ourselves by using its valuable cognitive resources for something more meaningful, something beneficial, instead of overthinking. Conscious breathing anchors us in the present moment. With conscious breathing, we rob our worries of the energy they need to spread through our minds. This mindfulness practice helps us to organize our thoughts and improve our ability to concentrate.

How to put our portable stress-reliever at use?

Breathing techniques and practices are as ancient, as colorful, and as diverse as mankind: Pranayama in yoga, Tummo breathing in Tibetan Buddhism, Buteyko methods, mindfulness, meditation, body scan techniques, somatic practice, regular exercise to enhance lung capacity and efficiency, alternate breathing – the list goes on and on, and there is something for everyone. You choose! Two prominent examples of breathing techniques are worth looking at a little closer:

One is the teaching of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s. Kabat-Zinn encourages us to pay attention to the in-breath and the out-breath without trying to influence them. Accepting and observing the constant flow of breathing helps to anchor our mind in the present moment. Research has shown that MBSR brings a variety of benefits: reduced feelings of stress and anxiety, fewer signs of depression, better coping strategies for dealing with chronic pain, improved alertness, cognitive flexibility, lower blood pressure and improved immune function, to name but a few.

Another quick breathing exercise that can work wonders is the prolonged or extended exhalation technique, sometimes called the 4-7-8 or 3-6 breathing method. This technique involves lengthening the duration of the exhalation compared to the inhalation. This is how it works:

1. Inhale quietly through the nose for four seconds.

2. Hold your breath for a count of seven seconds.

3. Exhale completely through the mouth, making a whooshing sound, for a count of eight seconds.

4. Repeat this cycle a few times.

This technique helps to calm our mind and body by slowing down our heart rate. It's like a "relaxation signal" for our nervous system and therefore an effective way to manage stress and anxiety "to-go". As simple as 1-2-3 and exactly the magical tool we could have used in the example at the beginning of this blog: No additional tools, no apps, no training, and something we carry with us all the time.

The shell of the nut:

As modern humans, our evolution and lifestyle changes have not always had a healthy effect on our breathing. In that, breathing techniques are the unsung heroes of stress relief.

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a fascinating program that unconsciously governs our daily activities. Understanding the relationship between our “gladiator in action” (SNS), our “gladiator at rest” (PNS), and our breathing can help us leverage instant techniques to manage stressful situations, thereby improve our overall health, and manage our emotions.

So, the next time you are stressed, take a deep breath, and let your parasympathetic system take over. Do it consciously and fill those 100+ hot-air balloons with happy, mindful air!

How Coaching can support:

Coaching can help us to become aware of the thoughts and beliefs that trigger stress reactions. By reframing negative thoughts, we can get to a more stress-free state. Reflecting on our stress-related body sensations and breathing habits with a coach helps us to recognize patterns and triggers and develop strategies to better manage them.

Coaches can also help us to create personalized stress management plans that take into account specific triggers, as well as our lifestyle and preferences. Developing actionable steps to integrate breathing and body awareness exercises into our daily lives helps to ensure consistency and effectiveness. Regular coaching sessions support us in taking responsibility for ourselves so that we can stay true to the actions we set out to take.

Becoming more aware of our body sensations and breathing during stressful times and finding ways to manage them with the help of coaching can ultimately lead to an improvement in our overall wellbeing and resilience.

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