Are you getting tired of me talking about the amygdala yet? That little pea-size thing located in the limbic region (emotion centre) of the brain is responsible for our entire survival. After all, it’s the thing that makes the assessment about whether we need to be on the alert for threat. It tells us when we need to focus our entire attention on getting out of a particular situation, whether by fighting for our lives or fleeing for it. The fight/flight response, otherwise known as the stress response.
Like we’ve talked about in previous posts, the amygdala sends signals to different parts of the brain that releases neurochemicals (a fancy word for hormones) that ready our body for that fight or flight. Adrenalin and cortisol provide extra strength for our muscles, and elevated heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. When you combine this with the lack of blood flow to the neocortex, or thinking centre, our emotions are truly activated and our ability to reason out the problem at hand becomes impaired.
As we discovered yesterday, this process is called up-regulation. It occurs every time we perceive something as a threat. I say it’s a perception because these days it’s not often that we get confronted by saber-tooth tigers outside our cave. Instead we’re confronted by all the things we discussed in the first 4 days of our focus month on stress. Everything that impacts on our bodies, mind and emotions.
Some of these are real threats to our survival, such as the trauma of abuse, but others are not. How many people have died when their kids don’t clean up their room after being asked 300 times? I’m guessing not many. But as we’ve already established, our amygdala doesn’t know the difference, so it makes the assessment regardless.
So we know how it becomes up-regulated.
Do we know how we can down-regulate it?
Don’t be overwhelmed by the terms I’m using. Up-regulation. Down-regulation. They sound technical but we can simplify them.
Up-regulation is to activate the stress response. To set it in motion and to put us on alert.
Down-regulation is the opposite. To calm us down. To ease our emotions, support the adrenalin and cortisol leaving out body, to calm our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. And to re-introduce the blood flow to the thinking centre of the brain so we can reason and problem solve again.
I know the process sounds complex, but as I hinted yesterday, it truly is simple to do. And it comes down to one word.
Yup, that’s it. We need to breathe.
Breathing promotes the flow of oxygen. And this in turn promotes the flow of blood. The more oxygen we take into our lungs the more we will have going through our brain. And that’s where we need it, to down-regulate the entire process.
Think about it. When we feel stressed how do we breathe? Shallowly. We breathe into our chest. And when we feel completely relaxed and chilled out, how does our breathing work then? Deeper. Complete breaths. From the diaphragm. This is the type of breathing that really supports the down-regulation.
I’d like you to try something.
While you’re reading this, I want you to either lay down or sit up straight. Place your hand on the front of your rib cage. Take a breath in and just notice what happens to your tummy. Does it rise up or sink in? observe it for a few seconds without trying to change it.
Now, try to get your tummy to rise up as you breathe in and sink down as you breathe out. Repeat, as you slow your breathing. Spend about 20 seconds simply focusing on this process.
And then check in with your body and mind about how you feel. Let us know what kind of difference you felt in the comments below.
Comments on: "Down-regulating stress" (12)
I find deep breathing helps to calm me down after a stressful incident. I also find meditation to be very helpful overall to stay in a calmer state of being.
I find exactly the same thing! And yet, like many people, even I find it difficult to keep up regular practice. It’s interesting to reflect on it.
I read this really interesting statement in The Big Leap that I thought you might like. It said that the difference between fear and excitement was how you breathed. When you breathe into the stimulus, you create excitement. But when you stop your breathing (hold your breath) you create fear. Now I try to breathe into the stimulus to turn an anxiety into excitement, but if that doesn’t work I will sit down and aim for calm breathing.
That sounds interesting Glenda! Do you have any more information on this?
I don’t know any science behind it sorry. It was just a comment in the book I was reading and it made me stop and reflect on how I react. I know that when I start to get afraid of something I tend to get quite still like I am trying to make myself small, which I guess is the ‘fright’ part of ‘fight, flight or fright’. When I do that I often stop breathing in a normal rhythm and unconsciously hold my breath for short periods of time, which is probably a way of focussing my attention on other stimuli around me. I’ve tried a number of times now to stop that pattern when I see it happening and instead breathe faster and more rhythmically and that has lifted the fear that I was feeling and helped me to enjoy the moment and experience. The only thing I can think of to describe the breath holding physiologically is that when the sympathetic nervous system is activated because of a threat, the noradrenaline released will cause bronchodilation in the lungs, i.e. making it easier to breathe and also to extract oxygen from the air. The theory is that is meant to make it easier for your heart and muscles to deal with ‘flight’, but it would also mean that you wouldn’t need to breathe as much to get the same amount of oxygen if you remained stationary.
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Sounds like you have a great strategy there Glenda!
Now that I live in my body more of the time I am able to practice breathing. When I am in an acute attack it is much harder to remember. I struggle with meditation because it always felt like I was leaving my body. My commitment is to stay in my body. After 10 years of recovery I have found several ways of meditating while paying attention to my senses. It is pure gift.
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It’s always so much more difficult to manage the response when you’re in the midst of it. It’s great that you have found some strategies that work for you and create the feeling of gratitude and blessings xx
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