Breathing your way through life
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you feel like you can't breath?
Maybe your chest feels tight, your heart feels like it's about to beat out of your chest, you begin to sweat and feel clammy, or perhaps you feel lightheaded or have even experienced a sense of doom......
When I had my first real experience of this, I can honestly tell you that I thought it was the end.
I remember very clearly that we had a company meeting where all staff had been called to attend a gathering in a small village hall. I have always found being around lots of people quite overbearing, but this situation for some reason felt worse. It almost felt as though everything around me was happening in slow motion.
I watched as the owner of the company closed the doors to the outside world and suddenly the feeling of entrapment washed over me.
Without warning my entire body completely changed. Externally my eyes were darting looking for a route to escape, my body was ready to run in a way I had never thought was possible. Inside my heart was racing, nausea rushed over me and a heavy set feeling in my chest was scaring the life out of me. I felt like I was about to lose consciousness in the middle of a corporate meeting. This in itself would of been the most embarrassing of situations. My need to escape was beyond comprehension.
I drank some water in a desperate attempt to calm myself down without making my ordeal noticeable to others around me. I tried to distract myself in my head with important things I needed to do. With no knowledge of time, people around me were suddenly standing up and filing out of the village hall. I had missed the entire meeting as my head and body were filled with panic and anxiety, I was completely out of the loop with what had been said.
As I travelled back to work with my colleagues there was a lot of chatter about the meeting and thankfully I soon manged to piece together what had been discussed. Phew!
I spent the evening wondering about the experience I had encountered. It worried me so much that the next day I decided to speak to my doctor. Sat in front of my trusty doctor I explained what had happened. I was expecting to be told that I had experienced something super significant like a heart attack or maybe I would be sent for scans to look at my brain functionality. To my utter shock, I was told that my experience was completely "normal!"
Normal, really? This just couldn't be right! It was impossible for me to think that the feeling that I was about to fall to the floor in an unconscious state was indeed normal?
But nonetheless, it was absolutely so, welcome to Fight and Flight mode!!
I needed to understand more about the physiological effects this mode was having on my body and my brain. What made this happen? And what changes happened to my body to make me feel this way?
So, here goes......
What happens to trigger the Fight or Flight mode?
Fight or flight mode is simply a stress response. It is a fundamental survival technique that has evolved within the animal kingdom to manage dangerous situations. For example, many years ago when a sabre toothed tiger aggressively made its way towards us as we foraged for food in the jungle, our fight or flight instinct would kick in. Essentially there would be one of two outcomes; you would either escape by running away or you would try to fight the beast. In basic terms you would either escape or be eaten.
Of course in today's world, sabre toothed tigers are not prowling the streets looking for their next meal. However, there are a huge number of other stress factors that can easily put us into this fight or flight state.
From work and finances to family, relationships, loss and the fast paced life most of us encounter in today's world, pretty much anything can be the trigger to this stress response.
Stress is around us everywhere, mainly due to the adverse pressures of life we all face on a daily basis.
What changes happen in the body?
Key things happen to the body to allow us to be ready for Fight or Flight:
Pupils dilate - enabling us to be more alert to the threats around us
Heart rate increases and the lung bronchi dilate - allowing more oxygen to be pumped to the muscles in order for us to run faster
Liver releases glucose - giving us optimal energy within the blood stream
Increased sweating - hormones are released which activate the sweat glands
Blood will thicken - this will increase the availability of clotting factors and immune system cells in case of an injury, meaning less blood loss and a better chance of survival
Hydrochloric acid is quickly sent to the stomach - this dissolves food quicker so that we can run faster on an empty stomach
Cortisol is produced - this is fed into the blood stream to fight infection and inflammation
After learning about the triggers and what happens within the body, some other questions opened up to me......
Was it possible to control or limit the effects of fight or flight mode? And if so, how could this be done?
Can we control or limit the effects of the fight or flight mode?
Yes, we absolutely can. It takes a lot of brain power to dampen the effects of our natural survival instinct. I believe we need to make changes in our daily lives and not just when fight or flight mode kicks in.
It is logical to have a plan already in place to handle these situations. If we don't have this, we may feel out of depth in attempting to gain back control of ourselves in the midst of panic.
For example, as your body enters fight or flight mode, it would be super difficult in that moment to suddenly organise your brain to calm yourself down. It just doesn't happen, or if it does, not very easily and potentially resulting in a much larger or prolonged issue.
Therefore, by making subtle changes in our everyday lives we begin to reduce the risk of even getting close to flight or fight mode.
I have listed a few top tips to reduce my stress levels - it gives me space in my mind to be able to deal with what comes at me more effectively:
Mobile phones, computer, laptops and tablets
Reduce the time you spend on social media
Refrain from checking work emails when not at work. If this is not possible have dedicated times when you can check and respond to work emails - make sure you stick to your allotted times
Turn electronic devices off in the evenings or set your notifications to silent
Take time to rest your body and mind. There is no shame in sitting back, reading a book and putting your feet up with a nice cup of tea. Be kind to yourself
Concentrate on being “in the moment” - whatever you are doing and wherever you are, enjoy it! Try to not think too much about the past or too much about the future
Whatever the weather, don’t let it stop you from being outside. Fresh air and natural surroundings can boost your mood and reduce stress levels significantly
For me, the main thing that helps me to relax is when I concentrate on my breathing. It has a profound effect on the nervous system and can significantly reduce the risk of panic attacks and the rise of anxiety.
In yoga, Pranayama or breath-work is the absolute key to taking us out of fight or flight and into the much more relaxed state of "Rest and Digest." Not only do we concentrate on our breath when we are in a difficult yoga pose, but we also use it as a way to bring us into the present moment and access a deeper state of calm.
We all breath everyday without even thinking about it, but in times of stress bringing your awareness to the rhythm of the breath can quite instantly help you to relax.
Below I have given some breathing techniques which may be helpful to you. Find a comfortable position and give them a go.
Don't wait until you are stressed to try them out, try them each day and just see if it brings any changes to your mind or your body.
Notice your natural breathing habits without seeking to change anything at all. Acknowledging the thoughts that may arise in the mind, noticing their presence and letting them gently drift away trying not to become too attached to them.
Notice where the air is entering the body and where the air is leaving the body and any sensations that may be present as this happens.
Bringing awareness to how the breath feels in its natural state.
Think about if the breath is long or short? Shallow or deep? Is there any areas of tightness or tension? Or does something feel really nice about the breath. Enjoy the breath just as it is.
Three-part breath – placing of the hands
1. Lie down on your back in a comfortable position, ensuring the spine is long. Begin by noticing the natural inhalation and exhalation of the breath.
2. Place your hands on the abdomen. Inhale through the nose and as you do fill the belly with your breath. Allow the abdomen to expand like a balloon. On the exhalation allow the breath to come out from the belly back through the nose, notice the naval as it draws back towards the spine. Make sure the belly is empty of air. Continue for 5-10 rounds
3. Place your hands on the rib cage. On the inhalation fill up the belly as above, but then see if you can continue the inhalation into the rib cage, noticing the expansion. On the exhalation first let the air on the rib cage go, and then continue the exhalation into the abdomen. Again, drawing the naval back towards the spine. Continue for 5-10 rounds
4. Finally place your hands on the top of your chest, just below the collarbones. As you inhale fill the belly and the ribs cage as above, but then see if you can draw a little more air up into the top of the chest all the way up to the collarbones. This will cause the area around the heart centre to expand and rise. Allow the breath to be full and deep. Continue for 5-10 rounds
We have all found ourselves in a place of uncharted territory when it comes to our bodies, minds, thought and feelings.
The breath is our life force, the most powerful tool at our disposal. Use it, be with it and love each inhalation and exhalation.
By watching, observing and feeling the breath we can activate our para-sympathetic nervous system. These means our body and mind are calm, resting, restoring and increasing the feeling of pure loveliness within our beautiful selves.
"Focusing on the act of breathing clears the mind of all daily distractions and clears our energy enabling us to better connect with the spirit within"
Much Love Zara xx