Your nervous system is in charge of many of your body’s processes, including breathing. And thanks to this system, you spend your day breathing at a relatively “normal” rate without really thinking about it.
Breathing happens automatically, and it can also change automatically. Your breathing rate can vary because of a change in your environment. For instance, if you experience stress, your nervous system will speed up your breathing rate as part of your body’s fight-or-flight response.
Threats are Threats
The fight-or-flight response protects you from threats. In case of an emergency, like an animal chasing you, your body recognizes the presence of this threat. Your autonomic nervous system kicks on and responds by increasing your breathing rate, elevating your heart rate, and creating muscle tension. You’re now prepared to deal with this threat.
The interesting thing about this response is that when your body experiences stress from daily life (no wild animals present), the physical reaction is no different. Even if the only threat is traffic or a forgotten appointment, you get the same fight-or-flight response. To your body, threats are threats, and your autonomic nervous system is fully activated.
Counteracting the Stress Response
You can override the automatic stress response and relax your body through breathing. The simple act of slow, deep breathing lets your body know that the threat is gone. If you start to feel overwhelmed or stressed out, pause. If you can, stop what you’re doing, and take several deep, intentional breaths. Breathing will slow the stress response and help you manage feelings of stress and anxiety.
Focus on Your Breath
The next time you experience stress or anxiety, pause. Focus on your breath.
- Start by breathing in through your nose, filling your belly, then your chest. Inhale for three to four seconds.
- Hold this inhale for two to three seconds.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth.
- Repeat this cycle three to five times or continue for up to three to five minutes.
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