What if I were to tell you that you had a transformative skill, right underneath your nose? Something that you can harness anywhere and in any moment.
It’s no secret that life is messy, always changing and thus, uncertain. The very nature of our environment is to evolve, grow and expand. Despite these same principles being true of human beings (we are a part of nature after all), we love certainty. We seek familiarity in order to remain comfortable and in control. This innate drive towards safety and stability is at times in direct conflict with the way that life really is.
But never fear! We are also incredibly adaptive and far more capable than we give ourselves credit for. Sometimes all it takes is a little knowledge, mixed with a little practice to help us feel calm amidst the storms.
With everything going on in the world as of late, stress and anxiety are at an all time high. 15% of Australian’s between the ages of 16 and 85 experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in 2020-21 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2022). While managing our existential anxieties, we are also having to manage living in a culture with skewed values that cause many of us to feel overwork, undervalued and down-right exhausted.
So, without getting too sciencey on you, let’s take a moment to understand what happens in our bodies when we experience stress and anxiety.
Stress is an adaptive mechanism that developed through evolution via our nervous systems (Grind, 2016). The autonomic nervous system is split into two branches, the parasympathetic and sympathetic. When we perceive something as frightening, our sympathetic nervous system causes an automatic physical reaction that prepares our bodies to fight or flee (Waxenbaum et al., 2019). This response is particularly helpful when encountering a dangerous animal in the wild. The catch is (why does there always have to be a catch?), our minds don’t often know the difference between real threat and perceived threat. In a modern world filled with pressure, expectation and deadlines, we can see how this becomes a problem. When we are chasing our tails, afraid of our boss’s reaction, or panicking about a conversation that didn’t go to plan, our bodies respond in the same way they would in confronting a physical threat. Unfortunately, the fight flee response (or, the stress response) takes a massive toll on the body and when we spend too much time in this state, we suffer the consequences. This is what we call burnout.
Luckily, the intelligence of nature offers up a balanced solution. Coined the state of ‘rest and digest’, the parasympathetic nervous system is active when we are in our most natural resting state. This gives our body a chance to replenish, reserve energy and to regulate important bodily functions such as digestion and excretion. The goal, if you will, is to form a better relationship with our state of rest and digest.
The question becomes, how do we learn to break the cycle of the repetitive stress response, to give ourselves the best chance of optimal body function and greater health and wellbeing? One word, breath.
The breath is the most direct gateway to the nervous system. Ever noticed the way that your breath shortens and sharpens when you’re stressed? By breathing slowly, in and out of the nose and deep into the belly, our bodies naturally calm down (Maher, 2021). The best part is, you’re always breathing which means you can access this transformative tool anyplace, anytime. It’s simple and magical at the same time. The hardest part, remembering, which takes time and practice.
Additionally, when we are focusing on our breath, we naturally become present. The breath is only ever happening in the moment. When we are completely in the moment, the mind loses its ability to worry about the future or ruminate on the past. Anxiety at its core, is worrying about the things that our out of our control. By practicing coming back to the breath when the mind is running wild, we start to rupture the cycles of anxiety.
Even though life can be tricky, it’s also exciting and filled with so much joy. We’re so lucky to be a part of this intricate living web, we just need to remember how to navigate it. So, let me leave you with a simple practice that you can take with you as your recipe for calm, trusting that you will be better equipped to manage all of the storms.
- Take a deep breath or two.
- Begin breathing in through your nose for the count of 4 and out through your nose for the count of 4.
- Once this feels natural and rhythmic, you’ll progress to breathing in for 4 and out for 6.
- Once this feels natural and rhythmic, you’ll progress to breathing in for 4 and out for 8.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2021). First insights from the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/first-insights-national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing-2020-21
Grinde, B. (2016). The Evolution of Consciousness. Springer, Cham.
Maher, S. (2021). The power of Breath. power.
Waxenbaum, J. A., Reddy, V., & Varacallo, M. (2019). Anatomy, autonomic nervous system.