In the face of acute stress, either our own that of another person in the midst of panic mode, it’s almost a certainty that someone will utter an instruction to, “Take a deep breath.” Who hasn’t been there? But good intentions aside, stop for a moment and consider how helpful that advice actually is.
Coaching a deeper the breath through a respiratory system in contraction mode and a body being flooded with stress chemicals can be counter intuitive and just the opposite of helpful. If the person could take a deep breath, chances are they would not be in head explosion territory. What is a “deep breath” anyway, and at what depth will the person know they’ve fulfilled the brief? In the midst of throat tightening, heat rising, mind racing tension, here’s a one more item to add to the list of things not going well.
It’s not that working with the breath cannot be helpful in stressful situations, because it very much can be. But a “deep” breath is not the be all and end all of release. (Want to see what I mean? Take note of your breath the next time you are lying on the couch in a state of complete relaxation. Chances are you’ll find that it’s quite shallow, absolutely commensurate to the energy required to maintain equilibrium in that state.) Rather, a less goal-oriented and directive instruction can be far more effective in calming the system. Letting go of some of the tension and reducing the stress response may very well produce a greater volume of air intake. But what you are really going after is that subdued stress response.
The simple techniques in this short video have a sedating effect on the part of the nervous system (sympathetic) that goes into overdrive when we’re stressed, triggering the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response. They can be practiced anywhere and anytime. (Except while driving–when on the verge of a road rage incident, please pull over first!) You may very well find that once you’ve found a way to stem the flow of stress chemicals, your chest will soften and your breath will start flowing more freely.
At which point taking a deeper breath will feel so, so good!
Big Blue original watercolor by Christian Rogers.
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