Some of us could use a quick way to calm stress and emotions this (or any) time of year, with winter and holidays approaching.
When we’re stressed or emotionally triggered, self-control and emotional regulation become much harder. It doesn’t mean we’re weak; it means the limbic brain is taking over.
But we have a quick, natural way to turn it around.
The brain’s response to threat
Stress and emotional triggers activate the sympathetic nervous system which prepares the body to respond to threat (e.g., raising the heart rate, tightening muscles),
Whether the threat is physical or emotional, the stress response is the same.
Stress chemicals ramp up activity in the limbic or “emotional” brain because that’s the home of our quick, reactive response that keeps us safe (think fight/flight/freeze).
At the same time, those chemicals switch off activity in the prefrontal cortex which we need for self-control and emotional regulation. So it can be nearly impossible to think our way out of the reactivity or trigger.
Instead we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which calms the sympathetic system’s response.
We do that by turning to the body. I call this bottom-up regulation.
The simple tool to calm the nervous system
When we can’t access the prefrontal cortex needed to control our thinking or behavior, we can back our way in by using breath to calm the nervous system.
Because the brain is constantly receiving and interpreting signals from the body, when you relax the body or deepen the breath, the brain recognizes that we are not in imminent danger.
If we’re breathing deeply, we are not needing to run from a bear in the woods, for instance.
Neuroscience studies confirm that brain activity corresponds with the breath in the same two areas associated with regulating emotions (the limbic brain and the cortex). When we consciously slow down the breath, neurons send signals to the rest of the brain to chill out.
A recent study reviewing over a dozen animal studies and human brain imaging found that when we breath in, we’re more sensitive to what’s happening around us; when we breath out, we tune out more of the external world.
Another study found that breathing correlated with neural activity in the limbic brain (specifically, the cingulate cortex) and supported the idea that our breathing impacts our emotions. For instance, we breath faster when we’re anxious, or we may hold our breath when we’re concentrating.
Science is continuing to study the power of the breath, but you can see for yourself the effect your breathing has on your emotions and attention.
3 ways to use the breath for calm
What’s so amazing is that this tool for calming the nervous system is simple, free and available at any moment!
If we follow the research, here’s how to use it to calm your stress response:
- Take slow, deep breaths. The slow rhythm is the opposite of the sympathetic stress response which quickens the breath (or holds it).
- Lengthen the exhale. For instance, you might inhale to a count of 3, and exhale to a count of 6. The exhale relates to a greater calming response than the inhale.
- Exhale while humming at the back of the throat (like an “m” at the end of an “om” sound in yoga). The sound stimulates the largest parasympathetic nerve called the vagus nerve.
With the bottom-up approach, we calm the nervous system and stress response so that we can access the prefrontal cortex and self-regulation.
Essentially, we widen the space between stimulus and response, because as Dr. Viktor Frankl said, “in that space is the power to choose our response.”
As the neural pathways for self-regulation deepen with practice, creating that space for mindful response becomes easier.
While we can’t change the situation setting off our emotional reactivity or stress, we can change our response and our brains – with the help the breath!
Share this post with a friend who could use it this time of year – and take a nice, long exhale 😉
Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash