Release tension, improve recovery and performance whilst preventing burnout.
Whether it’s a presentation, a competition, a difficult conversation or a big event that may just alter the course of your life, we all face moments of great importance, where we might be urged to make big decisions.
We’ve also all experienced the racing heart rate, increase in skin temperature and shortness of breath that often accompany these states of heightened pressure.
This is your nervous system talking, gearing you up for action. Your body communicates with you in the way that it was designed to. But how do we learn to translate it’s messages, and communicate back?
Our ability to effectively manage and understand the stress response might be the most important skill of the 21st century.
In fact, stress serves a natural, physiological purpose that can help us solve important problems and learn and grow from our experiences. Instead of trying to eliminate or tamp down stress, we should try to understand it and optimize it, minimizing the downsides while capturing the upsides.
No meaningful life is stress-free.
But, managed correctly, stress can be an engine of personal growth and peak performance.
Breaking the dopamine loop
Even with the assistance of the many mindfulness apps and techniques available today, pressing a pause on life and clearing our agendas, minds and frequent thought loops can be a challenge.
The dopamine excess of the modern world can keep us from sitting down and focusing on the single task of breathing. This is where superventilation style techniques can serve as a pattern interrupt. Something that provides a break from the mundane and temporarily lifts us above the day to day strive to see clearly again.
Take for example the effects of the Boundless Breathwork exercise on the autonomic nervous system. The increased breathing rates followed by neutral lung breath holds and periods of slow breathing activate both branches of the nervous system and restore balance, leaving us in a state of calm, ready to take on the world again.
Changing your state with such extremes simply must interrupt and override whatever state you found yourself in.
So often we find ourselves stuck in a certain emotional state, ruminating on negative thoughts and find it challenging to break loose. Breathwork allows us to break free.
Here’s a medical fact:
There is nothing inherently negative about the physiological side of stress. It is a hormonal jolt of adrenaline and cortisol released to elicit a certain physical response to a threat, real or imagined – that gives us a boost of physical energy and mental focus. In a normal stress response, when the threat passes, the heightened state is followed by calming effects of our parasympathetic nervous system.
Our body and mind calm, we restore our resources, and we prepare for the next challenge
All too often, the modern world does not allow for us to discharge these reactions appropriately. In a normal stress response the heightened state is followed by a natural discharge & calming effects returning us to a state of recovery and rest.
When we don’t discharge the stress response, we can continue to absorb stress unconsciously, which can result in chronic stress, which is associated with mood swings, reduced empathy and impulse control, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other ailments.
Chronic stress also opens the door to burnout. The pandemic has only increased the likelihood of burnout, along with a number of other concerning challenges to our behavioral health such as depression, anxiety, and substance use.
The key lies in understanding stress so that we can learn to harness our body’s normal responses, rather than only being subservient to it. Through Breathwork practice, we can learn to move deliberately between an engaged state, where we’re energized, focused, creative, and productive, and a recovery state, where we process events, learn, and recuperate.
In the book, why Zebras don’t get ulcers, Robert Sapolsky speaks to the many reasons why physical exercise is likely one of the best modern strategies for stress management.
“Most of all, the stress response is about preparing your body for a sudden explosion of muscular activity. You reduce tension if you turn on the stress response for that purpose, instead of merely stewing in the middle of some time-wasting meeting.
Stress often creeps in on us and builds up during the day.
This is a natural response to stimuli, and requires a natural reaction. Learning to harness breathwork provides a means to become an active agent in the stress cycle.
Rather than trying to calm the body down when our bloodstream is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, breathe into the intensity and start activating both branches of the nervous system to bring the response to completion and restore calm.
The trick is to meet your body where it’s at.
Pressing both the brake and the accelerator whilst stimulating the Vagus nerve by breathing deep and using breath holds helps you bring the stress response to it’s natural completion whilst learning a new way to perform under pressure.
Here’s an example:
This exercise, also known as Catana Breathing;
- Acts as a quick reset,
- Can be used anywhere, anytime
- Helps you enter the present moment
- & Complete the stress cycle.
- Take six deep full breaths in through the nose,
- Letting the breath fill up all parts of the lungs,
- Breath out naturally and unforced, then,
- Inhale fully and hold your breath in at full lung volume.
- Release and hold your breath on neutral lung volume.
- On the first contraction, full breath in, holding for a moment,
- Before exhaling as slowly as possible and
- Allow your body to breathe you for a minute or so…
- Repeat 3-5 times if needed.
Through practice, we can learn to move deliberately between an engaged state (sympathetic), where we’re energized, focused, creative, and productive.
And a recovery state (parasympathetic), where we process events, learn, grow and recuperate.
One of the models we use at Breathless to help clients understand their stress response is the Window of Tolerance.
The ‘green zone’ represents our optimal state of engagement. Depending on our own unique responses to our environment, mounting stress can build and drive us into the orange zone, where the fight / flight responses are engaged – or we spiral down into the red zone of freeze, where all reason goes out the window.
The key lies in mapping out our own unique window of tolerance and strategically using a balanced Breathwork practice.
This way, on a higher stress day, we can stay within the bounds of our ‘green zone’ – the place where our nervous system functions best and we’re most resilient. Not getting spun out into states of fight / flight, where we become anxious or frustrated, nor shutting down into a place of lethargy.
The blue dots represent moments of building stress and our response.
As you work on pulling the levels for focus and recovery, you’re strengthening your skills in moving between the two states more deliberately. Creating transitions helps keep them separate and distinct in our brain, increasing their effectiveness and further helping us get on top of our day. The goal here would be to learn how to use Breathwork to make focus and recovery something you can call on when you need it—a tangible, built-in part of your routines.
To get on top of stress, self-awareness is key; in neurological terms, it’s the first step toward lasting behavior change. Psychiatrist and author Daniel Siegel states, “Where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows.” And it is these newly grown neurological pathways that define our behavior and result in new habits.
Most of us are expert at going from 0-100, but can you return from 100 to zero effectively, without crashing?
Ask yourself the following questions
- In a typical week, do you create moments for rest? How often do you practice forms of active recovery – activities with the sole purpose of restoring calm and processing events?
Note the difference between active and passive recovery, the latter being the all too common netflixed-out, couch potato like brain state that’s been shown to only deplete us further.
- How often do you feel fully engrossed in activities or in a state of flow? How long do these periods last?
The flow state has been shown to be incredibly restorative, whilst losing touch with the deep now can be an indicator we’re redlining our systems and should prioritize recovery.
- Have you got systems in place to restore calm after stressful events or triggers? Think of a recent time when you were surprised by something stressful. How did you react?
We digress under stress, and often fall back on faulty patterns. Putting some practices in place to help us bounce back from stress effectively can help prevent us from spinning out of control under pressure.
- Are there any key moments during your day or week that serve as sources of stress or recovery?
How often do you recognize your stress in the moment versus afterward, or in the reactions of others?
- Do you recognize any of the warning signs of chronic stress in the above chart? Be honest, don’t bypass your lived experience.
The body whispers before it screams.
These are questions you can revisit periodically as you build self-awareness. Locating and describing your stress is a process of discovery, and the more you learn the better you will harness your own stress response. Journaling can also help you gain insights into how your body reacts to different activities—with a stress response or a recovery response—as can periodically measuring your heart-rate variability.
Keeping this philosophy in mind, here are some of the key moments to leverage the power of Breathwork and learn to control the stress response effectively.
- Early morning, this might be the most important time of the day. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning, this is the hormone that allows us to face stress, without it, we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. Too much cortisol feels like too much coffee. As with all good things, we’re chasing a happy medium. With stressors multiplying exponentially, piling up on eachother, cortisol levels tend to skyrocket as we face what the day brings. Breathwork is going to reduce the starting level and will speed up the return to normal. Setting you up for success throughout the day.
- Another key opportunity happens before your midday meal. This will help you re-center and alleviate any build up stress and tension whilst preparing your body for digestion and avoiding post-meal drowsiness. For most people, the morning is the time of day when the sympathetic nervous system is most active. Breathwork will have a balancing effect.
- Implement an end-of-day ritual. The afternoon for most is a change of rhythm, the day of work or study is over, it’s time to head into our next phase, which comes with it’s own inherent stressors. Breathwork in the afternoon helps you draw a clear line between working and not working. It also helps you leave the worries of the day behind and start with a clean slate. The quality of your evening and sleep depend on it.
- Immediately after stressful events. After angry outbursts, ours or others. Emotional triggers, traumatic events or significant bad news, our heart rate is elevated, breathing is stuck in our chest and we can’t think straight. Taking a moment straight away, minutes from the event, to breathe and re-establish equilibrium between the two warring nervous systems, which have been heavily mobilized can significantly reduce the short and long-term impact stressful events can have on our wellbeing.
Example of a day using breathwork to discharge stress.
Using the right breathwork exercises, at the right time, can prevent cortisol levels from skyrocketing as we face what the day brings. Setting you up for success throughout the day.
Stress gives us the physical energy and mental focus we need to respond to important situations. States of flow, moments of deep appreciation and overcoming epic challenges are all tied up with the experience of stress.
In and of itself stress isn’t bad, but when we manage it badly, fail to seek help—or both—we, and those around us suffer in wide-ranging ways. Learning to harness and understand the stress response, and become an active agent in the cycle can help us optimize it rather than seek to minimize it, and convert stress into learning, growth and a life lived to the fullest.