Psycho-neurobiology tells us that traumatic stress from an incident or chronic high stress conditions puts our bodies into survival – fight, flee, run like crazy or hide. Most of us know this. When Fight or Flee is the constant, the parasympathetic nervous system that stimulates self soothing hormones is weakened and we lose the ability to sooth and comfort ourselves.
The next go-to place for self-soothing becomes drugs, alcohol and high risk behavior. High risk behavior stresses the body so severely that the exhausted self soothing hormones will give what it can to the cause. Now that is the most simple way of understanding this dynamic and should explain why some of our PTSD combat veterans get hooked on the cycle of sever stress - relax. We can become addicted to our own bodies chemistry. So how do we take care of one half of the problem: One of the first and best ways to strengthen the self soothing system is by consciously slowing the breath to about six breaths a minute– this easy method is used in disaster areas and war zones with great success. A great way to learn the Calming Breath is by blowing bubbles -- children can be directly helped this way. Keep Bubbles in your Emergency Art Kit. The Emergency Art Kit.
At Ashlar, we call this practice The Calming Breathe – a five minute exercise. Like any exercise program, building strength will take time. You will feel better quickly but it won’t “hold” without practice because it is the practice of the Calming Breathe that gives it strength. Learning anything takes repetition for the brain to “get it.” Breathing is one of the few things that we do automatically and that we can also do consciously. The job is to consciously breath slowly until you have programmed yourself to this unconsciously -- until a slower breath is automatic and then you are no longer living in survival. And, it becomes a breath you can access when you are stressed or upset. Having trained yourself to do the Calming Breath you have built resilience -- you can bounce back quickly from upset. Just taking a deep breath when you are upset without having practiced the Calming Breath, gives less than satisfying results.
Breath is the gateway into the body and the unconscious. Aside from being relaxing, the Calming Breath has many health and mental health benefits including lowering blood pressure, alleviating feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, lowers production of stress hormones. If you are stressed long enough, then you will soon be living in the survival mode -- reactive, aggressive or withdrawn, poor sleep, irritable, depressed. If the stress has been more intense as it is with many of our combat or those who live in the inner city war zones or whose direct descendants suffered Adverse Events, you are more likely than not to have brain changes/suppressed DNA that you will pass on or have inherited yourself.
Advances in neuroscience tell us that remediating symptoms of Toxic Stress is really not optional -- we must do if we are not to continue replicating the situations that caused the brain changes in the first place.
Many of our refugees, combat vets, inner city residents, Native Americans and overworked Americans (like most of us) are just a few groups vulnerable to serious stress reactions and live in fight/flight/hide responses, leaving the weakened Self Calming (parasympathetic nervous) system to be accessed only through drugs, alcohol or high risk behavior. High risk behavior produces enough adrenaline to stir the weakened parasympathetic nervous system into action where it will initiate self calming hormones – a leap off the cliff on your snow board after a sports injury may be an attempt to get at the self soothing hormones or maybe you just want to end it all. In either case you may just need to get yourself into a different state of being -- ride your breath to that destination: the Calming Breath.
Because it takes time to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system, we need to practice the Calming Breath every day -- at least once and twice is better yet. Otherwise we remain in survival, in a high alert mode scanning our environment -- am I safe, am I safe, am I safe? When children have been highly stressed this physical response can look like and is often diagnosed as ADD/ ADHD currently, at supposed epidemic proportions. Our hunch is that many of these children are suffering symptoms of Toxic Stress.
Getting ready to do the Calming Breath
Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit with a straight spine, feet on the floor – make sure your legs aren't crossed. Pull back your shoulders as you sit up straight. You can let your hands sit on your legs with palms up.
Become aware of your breathing.
Awareness is a very important beginning step. Focus on your breath to get a sense of how you breathe ordinarily. Don’t try to change anything. Just notice. Do you breathe with your chest primarily? Do you breathe with your belly? Just notice. Then check your body to see where your shoulders are. Stressed people hold their shoulders high. We often will check our shoulders to see how stressed we are. Often just breathing deeply and well, will automatically drop our shoulders.
Breath should be: slow, quiet, rhythmic and deep.
Doing the Calming Breathe:
1. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth. Take another deep breath through your nose filling your belly and let it out smoothly and easily through your mouth with your lips almost closed.
2. Close your eyes or focus, eyes open, on a soothing image or on something in the place where you are practicing that is soothing. Breathe by filling your belly and as you do this allow the breath to move up into your chest and lungs. Always breathe into your belly first! When your lungs are full, stop and hold the breath for 2 seconds. You can lengthen the time of the hold as you practice to whatever pause is comfortable for you. Often seven is the goal number of seconds you should hold but don’t push yourself or strain.
3. At the end of the exhalation gently squeeze your ribs tightly and pull in your belly to empty your lungs while quietly repeating the sound lalalalalalalalala which allows the exhalation to smoothly empty your lungs.
4. Pause for two seconds.
5. Then allow your belly and lungs to smoothly inflate/inhale. The Calming Breath -- Breathe deeply, quietly, regularly and smoothly. Breathe in through nose filling your belly. When your belly is full your lungs will fill
Squeeze the air from your lungs and belly by tightening your rib cage saying lalalalalla.
Release into the next inhalation as your belly automatically breathes
Start with eyes closed or focus on something soothing in your environment while you breathe in to the count of four, holding it for the count of three and exhaling to the count of 7 if you can and hold the breath for three counts if you can. As you do this more easily you can extend the count to a place that works for you.
The breath work should be customized to meet your needs. Do this twice a day for about five minutes. It is important that you keep these morning and evening dates with yourself. Spend the time that is realistic even if only two minutes to begin with and do not go longer than 20 minutes. Most people find that doing the breath work five to seven minutes works best for their temperament and schedules. Be realistic about the amount of time you will REALLY spend so that you are sure to keep this date with yourself. This is not a contest but a support and strengthening of your own natural ability to calm yourself while under stress. You are building is resilience which will you to “bounce back” from difficult and stressful life experiences.
Again, it is more important that you keep these morning and evening dates with yourself than it is to work to extend the time. You do not want to push the time limit. If you push at all, it should be to just keep your date with yourself to breathe deeply, quietly, regularly and smoothly.
To repeat: these are the guiding words for The Calming Breath -- smooth, deep, regular and very quiet. As you focus on breathing slowly, deeply (belly), regularly (rhythmically) and quietly, it is easier to keep your attention on your breath. When you find your attention has wandered away from noticing your breathe, just quietly say “thinking” and return your attention to your breath.
This is a gift you can give to yourself. It serves the whole family well. Teach them as you learn. What better gift to give than the skills to calm and comfort yourself?
To teach your children the Calming Breath start by giving them a bottle of Bubbles and give them that wand telling them to take a deep breath so they can make many bubbles. Keep this as part of your Emergency Art Kit. See Resources.