Have you ever been in a situation where you’re particularly stressed or upset and someone has told you to stop and take a deep breath? I imagine most of us have at some point in our lives.
Whilst it may not always seem helpful, it’s usually really good advice.
Often is it good purely because we have to pause for a moment, which can help stop our snowballing thoughts.
But there is another reason that many people don’t realise, which is how taking a deep breath connects to the hidden communication network inside our body – our nervous system.
As we go about our daily lives, billions of neurones within our body are continually sending messages around the body. It’s a very complicated system that can’t be fully explained in a short blog post but for the purposes of this we only need to understand that our autonomic nervous system has two parts, which have oppostive effects:
- the sympathetic nervous system is what you may have heard referred to as our “fight and flight” system. This is great for when we are in an emergency, and need to fight back or run away. So if you have a car speeding towards you or are running away from a dangerous animal then your body is doing exactly what it needs to do. It increases our heart rate and widens our blood vessels in our muscles so that more oxygen can be passed around the body, whilst restricting the actions of many of our normal bodily functions, which explains why when facing a stressful situation we get a dry mouth and may even look pale. The body also releases extra adrenalin, which causes that racing heart and churning stomach.
- the parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of this, and is often called “rest and digest”. In this mode our body feels safe and relaxes – our heart rate slows down, our blood pressure drops back to normal and our digestive system starts working again. Think of our ancestors having safely returned from the adrenalin-fuelled hunt and settling down to enjoy their meal around the fire.
These two systems work brilliantly most of the time, but they have a couple of glitches.
Firstly, a lot of the problems and threats we now face can’t be fought or run away from in the same way. The current coronavirus crisis is a perfect example of this – we know there is a threat out there, for ourselves and our loved ones, but what we need to do to fight this is – for most of us – nothing. We can’t run away from it, we can’t physically take it on and attack it, and we can’t even just “freeze” in place – we have to try to go about our daily lives in a world where everything is different and we have to just wait to see what the future may bring. It can feel very hard as our nervous system picks up on our sense of threat and tries to help us, but it is impossible for us to make that escape.
This links into the second problem – many of us find ourselves stuck in sympathetic “fight or flight” mode, and find it hard to switch back to parasympathetic “rest and digest” – meaning we keep having tense muscles, unsettled stomach and feeling on constant alert.
Massage is perfect for helping “tell” the body to switch back to the parasympathetic nervous system – which is why things like falling asleep or even your tummy rumbling tell us it is working and your body really needed it!
Taking a deep breath helps in a similar way – it tells your body that there is no immediate threat, that we don’t need those fast, short breaths that help us get maximum oxygen in minimum time, but we can relax and take time to look around us and focus on what we have – our resources, our friends and family and the wider support community. If we can help our body to switch in this way then we should find the adrenalin stops pounding around our body, our muscles can start to relax and the rest of our body can return to its usual functions.
It can be hard to think of this “in the moment”, because – as we know – our bodies are focused on moving rather than stopping and thinking. So it can be really helpful to practice this – try identifying one or two opportunities throughout the day when you can stop, take a few slow breaths and focus on just relaxing and feeling safe in the moment. The more you can learn to tap in to this feeling, the easier you will find to do it when anxiety hits again.