I’m always amazed at how effective this simple directive can be: Just stop… and breathe.
Sounds too simple right? Just stop and breathe! Sometimes I can almost hear my client’s thinking, “I’m paying this guy to tell me to breathe?”
But there’s much more to the instruction than you may realise. When we are in a state of anxiety or overwhelm, when we start to get buried under those negative ruminations and catastrophic thoughts of what bad things are going to happen—our limbic system (our “emotional brain”) has taken the helm and we are at it’s mercy. What this means is, the deepest part of our brain is running the show, blood is flowing to it because it is demanding resources (oxygen) to run it’s show of emotional hijack. Yes, it’s hijacking your prefrontal cortex (your “smart brain” right behind your forehead) and taking it “offline”. We can’t think things through rationally and we get swept up in the emotional pull of our emotional brain.
So what to do? How do we get our “smart brain” back online? We have to go into manual override in order to get our nervous system back under control and our “smart brain” back at the helm.
When you stop, and take a deep breath in, and a nice slow and full outward breath, focusing on the air coming in and then going out, there is a lot of things happening. Let me break it down for you:
1. When breathing deeply you are manually taking control over that part of your nervous system that would normally breath fast and shallow when anxious. Your whole system “listens” to the fact that now your breathing is slow and deep, so “things mustn’t be as bad as we thought,” says your limbic system, and the anxious response starts to calm down.
2. When you breathe deeply you are supplying more oxygen to your brain—something that your smart brain really needs to take control from your emotional brain.
3. Full, slow, and measured outward breaths activates part of your vagus nervous system that sends a signal to your brain to slow down the sympathetic nervous system (the accelerator) and increase the parasympathetic nervous system (the brakes, if you like).
4. Focusing on the breathing is activating your smart brain, drawing resources to it (blood and oxygen) and from the emotionally driven hijacker, your emotional brain.
5. As you focus on your breathing, this stimulates neuronal connections from your smart brain to your emotional brain, and if you do this enough on a regular basis, you will literally develop more and faster connections from your smart brain to your emotional brain, and that means better emotional control.
So the next time you are overwhelmed, in a panic, anxious, nervous, think “Stop. Breathe” and remember that there’s a lot going on in your favor when you do so.