I have been a bit slack about posting. Lots of irons in the fire here, and unfortunately this blog gets back-burnered when time is short. Recently, I wrote to a friend about the reason she should be taking 2 minutes to breathe for 10 seconds when she is stressed and really daily whether or not she is stressed.
I’m posting the email here because I think it’s good info, and a pretty quick summary, even if it’s kinda rambling.
Sorry for the late email! Long day!
Here’s what I want to share:
There is a very long nerve that runs from your brain stem/limbic area of the brain to your heart. Consider it a dedicated circuit between the brain and the heart. The role of this nerve is to control the heart if you are in mortal danger. It pretty much shuts down your extraneous (at that moment) systems (such as digestion) and makes your heart pump fast and VERY CONSISTENTLY.
Normally your heart beats vary in length and frequency. This is known as Heart Rate Variability. High HRV or Low HRV can actually be a great measure of your health. Lots and lots written about it. When your HR is very variable, that means that your parasympathetic is in control. This is the “autopilot” you want to be flying the plane. It means you are calm, relaxed, and able to easily function in the pre-frontal cortex area of your brain.
If your HRV is very low (you have a very consistent heart rate), it actually means you are in a state of arousal, you are ready to fight, flee, or freeze. Your digestion is an after thought, and crucially, you aren’t able to use areas of your Pre-Frontal Cortex. This part of the brain (responsible for decision making and executive function) “costs” a lot to use. It eats up glucose very fast, and gets exhausted quick…also, it may make you pause while you consider the best course of action to run from the lion, or try to talk it out of eating you. By then it would be too late, so when in a state of arousal, the PFC is actually shut off. Since the carpool being backed up, an urgent conference call, and spilled coffee…won’t actually eat you…the problem is that our PFC is shut off precisely when we need it the most for modern life.
How do you get it back?
One method is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, force the vagus nerve to tell the heart to slow down, and allow cortisol levels to drop. This is called “vagal toning” and there are a LOT of woo-woo kinds of things (‘hippie-dippie’) out there about this. However, there is a lot of science behind it in actual psychology research journals. Two common methods BACKED BY RESEARCH are slowing your breathing down to 4-6 breaths per minute for AT LEAST 90 seconds, or humming for at least 90 seconds.
Since humming can draw attention to yourself, and slowing your breathing can be done relatively unnoticed, this is my go-to. However, if you are alone in your car, or are braver than I, feel free to hum! 🙂 Feel like adding power? Hum WHILE doing 10 second breathing.
You want to get down to 4 to 6 breaths PER minute. That means, one full breath every 10 seconds…or 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out.
Why greater than 90 seconds? Because that’s how long it takes for a pump of cortisol to burn out in your body. If you can break the cortisol release cycle (I’m stressed – cortisol is released, now I’m stressed AND anxious, and my body is on edge, omg why am I shaking, great a headache! How can I present now!?!?! OMG more cortisol just was released…thanks a lot!), Then you give yourself a BIG LEG UP.
It might not cure all the things that stressed you out, but it keeps you from making it worse, by then worrying “Is this a heart attack? is this a panic attack? My stomach is in knots, maybe it’s stomach cancer?”
Is that just me? Oops?
So…here’s some other super cool vagus nerve info. You are less likely to have a heart attack if you have high HRV. Also, if you have a heart attack and then practice 10+ second breathing every day, working up to 20 mins, you recover faster, and have less of a chance of a second heart attack.
What’s more, you should do 10 second breathing EVERY DAY. Whether you are stressed or not.
Even if you only do it once a day, for two minutes…it impacts your body in amazing ways.
When I’m doing it, I watch the second hand and I think “THIS is the breath that I’m working on…”
then..”Now…THIS is the breath that I’m working on.” And so on.
It’s very grounding and keeps me fully present. I can do it in meetings, and sometimes I do. I can do it in the car…But it’s currently in my “Lunch routine.” I eat, then do 3 mins (I’m working up to 5 or 10), then I might do a small meditation or light reading for 2 mins. Notice, the 10 second breathing is it’s OWN THING. I consider myself in HRV training, and meditation is necessary and important, but different and I keep them separate.
Once I get to 10 mins of 10 second breathing, I might try to make it 12 second breathing (5 breaths/minute).
Thanks for reading this far if you actually have! Sorry to ramble. It sounds complicated, and invasive in life, but I’m telling you it’s not. And you can work it into anything. Like maybe that’s your stoplight thing. Maybe during potty breaks (though you’ll have to tell me how humming in public toilets goes over…I feel like that would make great Twitter humor). It doesn’t matter. The more you do it, the better, but once a day for 2 mins is super impactful. When I started I did it at least 4 times a day (breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner – I figured if I tied it to food, I wouldn’t miss it 🙂 ).
ok – enough rambling! Hope that helps!