By focusing attention on controlling the breath by taking a deep breath in and slower longer breath out, then doing that consistently, we initiate our para-sympathetic nervous system.
By focusing attention on controlling the breath by taking a deep breath in and slower longer breath out, then doing that consistently, we initiate our para-sympathetic nervous system. iStock

Breathe through it and respond more effectively

So, have you ever been in the situation where you're escalating your thinking about a situation that's coming up and in which you appear to have little or no control?

The one where your self-talk is heading into a full-on battle about what will happen, what you'll do, your blood pressure is increasing along with your heart rate as you prepare for the worst-case scenario? And where you start to build anxiety of the unknown outcome and your partner may say something like "It's OK, just calm down. Everything will be fine”?

What's the impact of that advice? Is it to immediately go "Yep, you're right. Thanks for that. I'll calm down” or do you start looping in your mind all of the reasons of why it's not going to be fine? This powerful set of emotions then creating an overwhelming sense of anxiety where your normally open-minded thinking is almost impossible to access.

It's interesting the way the mind works and, for me, what I've learnt through a range of experiences including the one above is twofold - do not believe everything you think; and if you don't control your mind, your mind will control you.

As your brain unconsciously scans the environment every quarter of a second looking for threat or change (which it may react to as threat) it will attribute similarities in the situation it finds to situations it has experienced before and will bring forth similar emotions and reactions used in those experiences. It will do this unless we consciously apply controls.

In order to get a level of control over the limbic response that has us amping up, the opportunity is to work in a different way by taking a more physical approach and that approach is to take control of our breathing.

When we are under threat - real or imagined - our breathing becomes shallow and our focus becomes on whatever is the threat, whether internal or external, as we prepare to fight or flee, freeze or appease. This physiological reaction is because our sympathetic nervous system is engaged.

By focusing attention on controlling the breath by taking a deep breath in and slower longer breath out, then doing that consistently, we initiate our para-sympathetic nervous system.

Apart from providing much needed oxygen back into our internal organs, this essentially flicks a switch that brings a calming effect on our system and enables us to relax and get back to a more balanced state in emotion and thinking.

This is not a cure-all for our response to events. It is a great way to get a quick break in what overwhelms us so we can respond more effectively to those situations that trigger us. Remember - just breathe.

Nick Bennett is a facilitator and coach at mindsaligned.com.au



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