Want to Be More Resilient? Just Breathe
When we experience a stressful event, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. In this fight-or-flight state, our bodies release adrenaline, which gives us the energy we need to respond to the situation. When the threat is gone, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, allowing our bodies to rest and digest. Imagine a gazelle running away from a lion. Once it is safe, it immediately goes back to grazing.
Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. How fast we would return to grazing were we gazelles. The problem many of us face today is that we are in a constant fight-or-flight state. Our brains perceive overflowing inboxes, client complaints, long commutes, and tight deadlines as potential threats, meaning our sympathetic nervous systems stay activated, giving our bodies few opportunities to recover.
The good news is that you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system to return to a state of calm any time you want. It’s really simple! All you have to do is breathe. In her book, The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä explains how you can use breathing practices to restore your resilience. Slow breathing activates the vagus nerve, which slows down your heart, lungs, and digestive system. Long exhales are particularly useful for calming you down.
You can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brakes. We need both. Some stress is good, helping us to perform better. But chronic stress is harmful to our bodies.
You can tap into your natural resilience by taking long, deep breaths in order to calm down. The next time you are feeling stressed, take a moment to close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Breathe deep. This will activate your parasympathetic system, giving your body a chance for rest and restoration.
Is resilience really that easy? It can be! Emma explains how breathing has helped veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and how we can impact our emotions through our breathing patterns in her TED Talk below.