The Power of Breath to Relax In the Moment

  • 22 April 2016
  • sjanicke

Drama, drama, and more drama. We get caught up in it constantly and I don’t mean REAL drama but the drama in our heads! Just last week I went apartment hunting in CA and got really frustrated because I did not find anything. After all it was my goal to find an apartment in the 3 days I was  there and when I have a goal I want to reach it! Well, this was apparently not meant to be (which later turned out to be great, actually, as always...) but I could not let go of it. My mind started to create all these stories, all this drama about what I am supposed to do now, how I will manage a cross country move, what I am doing with all my stuff ect.

Now, I do have a steady mindfulness practice and know that it is me that perpetuates the cycle of misery. The more I feed my drama of “Oh, where am I going to live, Oh, I will be homeless (well not really), Oh, where should I get all the money from to finance this, ect.”, the more depressed I feel.

Victor Fankl, a well known concentration camp survivor, author of “Mans Search for Meaning” and inventor of “logotherapy” said: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.

And what Victor Fankl said theoretically is actually supported empirically too. Neuroscientific research has shown that our bodily response to a thought/stimulus (so for stress, our cortisol response) actually only stays in the body for 90 seconds.

So, feeling stressed and anxious from not reaching my anticipated goal of finding an apartment activates my heart rate, blood preassure, sympathetic nervous system, and releases cortisol in my blood. This bodily reaction then, however, only lasts 90 seconds. After that the body has reached homeostasis again. Now, we feel annoyed and stressed however much longer than 90 seconds. Why? Because we continue to feed our body with the story of “I am so annoyed and stressed” and BAM the body reacts again with another 90 second cycle of chemical releases.

I mean, wow!

So how can we relate differently now to our emotional responses and become aware of this space between stimulus and response that provides us with freedom and power as Victor Frankl stated?

Well, any form of mindfulness practice really is beneficial here.  

We can pay attention to our emotions, (ohh, I feel annoyed, I can feel how my stomach tightens up) and our thoughts itself (I notice I think about how to manage my cross country move without an apartment squared away). Instead of getting lost in the emotions we become a third person observer of our emotions and look at them with curiosity: "Oh, I notice I am actually really annoyed, exhausted from driving around all day and overwhelmed". Doing this, takes time and thus, creates space between the stimulus and our response and can interrupt the cycle of thought --emotion -- body reaction.

So in a way instead of being the emotion: "I am angry, I am annoyed, I am sad", we become aware of our experience: "I experience anger, I experience annoyance, I experience sadness".

Now, this all sounds great in theory but after, what seemed to be the perfect apartment was snapped away under my nose AND my flight was 2 hours delayed…well, becoming an observer of my emotions and thoughts was the last thing on my mind (well, of course it was since my mind was occupied thinking about the misery it was in and perpetuating the drama).

Now, there is something that is a little bit easier to do when we feel completely high jacked by our emotions and short-circuited in the brain.  Instead of noticing our thoughts and emotions, we can distract ourselves by giving our mind something completely different to focus on.  Something that is always there. That’s right. The breath.

So here I was, standing on gate A5 at the Orange County Airport at 7.30 am in the morning with one hand on my belly, my eyes focused on the ground, feeling my abdomen rise and fall. In….and out…in…and out… I then tried to make my exhales twices as long as my inhales to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as vagal tone breathing), and it totally worked.

Breath is an amazing tool for us to take “control” of our bodies. It can be literally life saving. This video from the Stanford Psychologist Emma Seppaelae on the power of breath tells us how.

Now, being me, always thinking about how to rewire happiness with technologies, my experience left me wondering: How could have technology assisted me in the process of breaking through the 90 second thought -- emotion -- body reaction cycle?

I was lucky that my airport freak-out-episode happened in the morning where my self-regulation was still in tact. When this situation would have taken place at 5pm in the afternoon, instead of breathing deeply, I probably would have just gone to the next Starbucks to get an extra large, extra hot, dark double chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut, mocha with whipped cream for a gazillion dollars. Now, ok, I am a weirdo and don’t really like sweet stuff but I probably would have done something similarly self-indulgent.

So, how can technology potentially help here?

(On a side note, I know it is easy to become reliant on technology to do the work for us, to be self-aware for us, but I regard technologies as a great starting point to even start thinking about things like greater self-awareness and emotion regulation, see more about his topic here)

For example the Feel Band (still looking for funding) is  a biofeedback device that could help with self awareness of stressful moments. It alerts you in moments of great stress through a short vibration and then provides you with some simple exercises to do in that moment to de-compress. So exactly what you need in that moment and what prevents you from spending $10 on a very unhealthy drink or snack or whatever other form of self-indulgent distraction may be conveniently close by.

Spire, is another wearable, this time to wear on your belt or bra to help you become more aware of situations in your work-life in which you are stressed and how to calm down. I don't know if it can direcly allert you in times of extreme stress, but it does help  you to find out what the situations are, in your daily life, that cause stress in your body. This device is already available for purchase on Amazon or BestBuy.

While technologies cannot take the stressful moments away from us, I think they can help us through them.

In the end, we still have to do the work. Technologies can remind us in the moment to do the work. Knowing that breathing is indeed a scientifically validated "tool" to reduce stress (here are just some studies: 1, 2, 3) makes me feel empowered. Empowered to do something about the uncomfortable feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. It gives me control. And control is what we always fear loosing in life, isn't it?