Take a second to breathe…. Seriously. Just relax your jaw and your shoulders and take a deep, slow breath. Intentional breathing is one of the most effective ways to calm our sympathetic nervous system. In modern times things happen fast and our sympathetic nervous system, associated with fight-flight-freeze responses, is often called into play. The problem is that this system is geared primarily to give us the ability to engage with real physical threats as opposed to the types of chronic stress that we typically deal with today.
When our sympathetic nervous system takes over, hormones and neurotransmitters are released by the body to prepare it for danger. This leads to an increase in heart rate and breath rate, but a decrease in the ability to effectively utilize problem solving skills. Chronic exposure to stress can result in over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system and poor long term health outcomes.
It is important for us to be able to manage stress and regulate our own emotions. In the Mandt System, we say that you should “affirm your feelings and choose your behaviors”. One thing that helps us to do this is to slow down a bit and focus on our breathing. When in the moment, it may mean taking a couple of deep and slow breaths. One might also try a technique called “tactical breathing”. This is a technique that was developed by Lt Col (ret.) Dave Grossman to help soldiers to regulate their own fear in combat situations (Grossman, 2008). The practice involves several cycles on an inhalation of 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and then hold 4 seconds. After a stressful event, it might be helpful to try to induce the “relaxation response”, a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson (Benson, 1975). Dr. Benson did early research in eliciting the parasympathetic nervous system to help calm an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system. Here are the steps to elicit the relaxation response:
Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
Close your eyes.
Intentionally relax your muscles. Begin with your feet and gradually work from muscle group to muscle group all the way up to your face and head.
Become aware of your breathing. Breathe through your nose, if possible. Slowly think the word “one” while you inhale and then again while you exhale. Breath in a relaxed and natural manner.
Continue for 10 or more minutes. If ten minutes seems too long at first, it’s okay to start with a shorter duration. Just do what you can.
Don’t try too hard. This is about relaxation…. Trying too hard might defeat the purpose. If troubling thoughts pop up just let them pass without paying too much attention to them.
John Windsor – Mandt Faculty