Take 10 Breaths
Take 10 Breaths
As humans, our big brains have been our biggest evolutionary advantage; however, our human ability to imagine future scenarios is also a huge stressor for the rest of our bodies. There are two main reactions that your body has: a “sympathetic” state is also known as “Fight, Flight, or Freeze,” which is a simple illustration of the ways we react to stressors: we get ready to fight, run away, or freeze like a deer in headlights.
The interesting thing about the sympathetic response is that it is the same no matter what the stressor is: whether you see a bear or get a stressful email, your body reacts the same way. In a sympathetic response, your body diverts energy towards the functions that would allow you to fight or run away: your pupils dilate, heart rate and blood flow increase, the passages in your lungs expand so you can take in more oxygen, and your sweat glands open up. That energy is diverted away from non-essential emergency systems, so your digestive and immune systems slow down.
When the threat is over, your body is supposed to return to a “parasympathetic” state, or “Rest and Digest.” Energy returns to your digestive and immune systems, heart rate and blood flow slow down, and your body can turn its attention to repair. This is why your hair and nails grow at night – you’re in an extended parasympathetic state and your body can focus on growth and healing.
Back to the problem of our big brains. While a sympathetic nervous system response is very useful when running from a tiger, it's a bit of overkill when it comes to stressful email or last-minute deadlines. Since stress causes our bodies to prepare to physically react to a threatening solution, our brains are less useful while we're stressed out because we're literally focusing on not dying. Also, simply imagining a stressful situation causes the same type of response in your body. So when you worry about potential stressors, your body is reacting as if those things are actually happening to you.
Many of us live in a nearly constant state of low-level stress, which has a myriad of negative effects on the body. Suppression of the digestive and immune systems means problems with digestion and a high susceptibility to illness; the body keeps glucose circulating in the blood as a ready source of energy for fighting or running away, which wreaks havoc on normal insulin response and increases the risk of diabetes; repeated spikes in blood pressure harden the arteries around the heart and increase the risk of heart attacks; wound healing and illness recovery is slower; and there are many other effects that spiral out of constant stress.
Before you start to stress about how stressed out you are, it only takes ONE deep breath to start to switch your nervous system from fight-flight-or-freeze to rest-and-digest. And if you can take the time to take ten deep, mindful breaths just once or twice a day, you can make a significant difference in your body's reaction to stress.
Taking 10 breaths is the first step to a meditation practice. Forget trying to carve out 10 minutes a day to sit on a cushion with your eyes closed - that's not a beginner place. Instead, stay at your desk, look at your computer screen, and count each breath from ten down to one. Try setting yourself a reminder to do this every morning! It's an easy way to bring a little more mindfulness into your day.