Counting to Ten is Not Enough so How do I Calm Myself Down?
When I was a kid, my parents used to say “count to ten” or “take a deep breath” however this never seemed to work. Either I would refuse to do it as they were TELLING me to do something, telling me during an argument or I would do it only to find I was still very upset and not relaxed at all! Arguments and fights full of “potty mouth” were regular elements of my childhood. What perpetuated this poor, hurtful behaviour and why did it no go away? I mean, we all knew it was not good?
Unfortunately my parents, like so many of us, didn’t know or understand the basic science around properly oxygenating our bodies. We also did not know the creative way our body manages stress… so cool is the body’s Physiological Stress Response. Yes, during a 1988 York University lecture, it was said to be the “body’s smart” response to stress! When I heard that stress was actually a positive thing I was shocked.
Why had I not heard this in over two decades of life? (Not even in school? At least not that I remember 🙂
Turns out our bodies, yes all 7+ billion of us, do something amazing when we are faced with a real or even perceived threat. Oxygen is depleted in a millisecond, the brain senses the problem and sends out the alarm “WE’RE UNDER ATTACK”! We know how the story goes from there. Well, if not and by way of a refresher, the adrenal gland releases stress hormones (- known on the street as adrenaline -) called cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, etc., then the heart rate and blood pressure surge, our muscles tense and tighten and the cooling system or sweat glands kick in with the intensity of a thunderclap. As stated, it all happens in a millisecond, the body’s smart response to an attack.
Imagine you’re walking through the woods, down a rocky path on a beautiful sunny day, and you hear a rustling sound. Off to your left, in the grass, about twenty five feet or so, you see a bear! The body immediately acts to bring about a surge of energy often referred to as the fight or flight response. Our bodies are creatively designed to move us into either fight, flight, faint or freeze during heightened stress. Remember, the stressor may be real or not.
The lecturer then asked us to consider the four systems that rocket into action under stress: Under the sympathetic side of our nervous system, the endocrine system releases hormones to fuel the great burst in energy, the cardiovascular system, muscular and cooling systems also engage. What the professor asked next taught me so much more about the benefits of relaxing our bodies. He said “If four of your body’s systems kick-in intensely to address the stress then where does the energy come from… what four or five systems give up energy or transfer energy?”
What physiological systems are not required when a bear attack is present? What is not required?
Wow! Of course! When a bear comes out we’re not going to require much thought or higher order reasoning. I recall reference to this as the ‘brain drain’. You certainly wouldn’t need to ask your friend “where do you think the bear came from, is he a brown or kodiak?“. Brain drain? No wonder I have said such silly, hurtful and ridiculous things in stressful moments.
Next, we do not need our digestive system… not a great time to eat. Probably not going to say “let’s have a sandwich, get some energy, before dealing with that bear“. Probably not going to go to the washroom either. That’s right. The gastrointestinal (GI) system also gives up energy for the fight or flight, “body’s smart” response to stress. Amazingly, the limbic system (sleep regulation) and the reproductive system (do I need to say what this one can do?) also give energy into the pot for our sympathetic system’s quick response to the bear.
Makes sense right? We’re not going to need our upper level thinking, sleep system, eat a meal, get frisky nor go to the washroom, although the latter may happen involuntarily in the face of a bear.
Toward the end of this dramatically presented bear story, the professor said “Of course you need this stress response when facing a bear, an attacker or an oncoming car in the way of… but… (he yells) you don’t usually need the physiological stress response in family relationships, bank line ups or while driving! However, it is exactly the same physiological response.
How did this all begin? What was the first physical change? Loss of Oxygen!!!!!!!!!! Then Breathe, Breathe, Breathe, Breathe
We can shut down the sympathetic response from our nervous system, engage the parasympathetic thereby relaxing and rebalancing our bodies with, not one, four deep breaths, slowed down, paced twenty second breaths
Reduce stress, relax heart rate and lower blood pressure… did I mention increase mental clarity and concentration, appear friendlier, be more amorous and improve your sleep 🙂
Have you heard of “box breathing”? Below is a little video to show how to breathe around the box shape. Remember, you can do this almost anywhere, anytime in almost any situation where you experience stress – low, moderate, high or severe.
Be seated or lying down if your doing more than 5 or 6 breaths
You can practice tens or hundreds of times per day so that when you really need this skill it will often come to you seemingly naturally. It will become your go to relaxation skill. You can also add many variations of thinking patterns to help. Some might imagine beautiful and relaxing scenes, call up past images that are calming and refreshing (guided imagery) or breathe in a calm word and exhale a stress heightening term. Others still use meditation and prayer along with deep breathing. Example of “breath prayers” are below
Breath Prayers can bring believers closer to God.
“Be still and know … that I am God”(Psalm 46:10)
“Come into my heart, … Lord Jesus.” (Rev. 22:20)
“Say … the word” (Luke 7:7)
“Not my will,… but yours.” (Luke 22:42)
“Show … your power.” (Psalm 68:28)
“Here … I am.” (Isaiah 6:8)
“My help … comes from the Lord.” (Psalm 121:2)
“Speak, Lord,… for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9)
“Lord, … have mercy.”(Psalm 123:3, Luke 18:13, 38)
This simple deep breathing exercise, box breathing, changed my life, improved my ability to manage high stress moments, not perfectly but better and better the more I use oxygen well.
Have fun practising oxygenation exercises, deep breathing and managing your body’s multiple systems to bring about calm under fire, sensibilities when facing pressure, politeness during disagreements and balance when all seems out of balance.