It sounds way too simple but one of the quickest and most effective ways to stabilise ourselves when we are hit with an amygdala response in a situation is to get control of our breathing. When we get triggered or activated by someone or by a situation then our physiology is what takes over. Our primitive, survival instincts kick in in response to the detection of a threat (whether in reality this threat is real or not), our breathing pattern changes, heart rate becomes erratic and our pre frontal cortex, which is the thinking part of our brain, goes ‘offline’.Physiologically, our body’s early warning systems are getting us ready to get out of there in one way or another. Sometimes, we are left feeling bewildered or embarrassed about how we reacted when we realise what has happened. The trick to diffusing this type of response is to keep the pre frontal cortex switched on and working so that we have the opportunity to think our way our of a situation rather than to react our way out.
Experiments done with volunteers who agreed to be placed under stress whilst hooked up to heart and brain function monitors show that heart rate stabilises and brain function increases under pressure when people get a grip on their breathing. The result is that they are increasingly able to think their way out of activating situations rather than reacting. Often, we buy into the lie that to deal with the painful issues that we face, we need to do something really difficult. Yes, exploring the underlying issues often is painful but there are simple interventions that we can work at which will help to calm things in the present. Breathing mindfully, really is one of those things.
Try these breathing techniques. Practice them when you are not activated or triggered so that when you need them, you don’t need to think about them.
Rhythmic Breathing: Breathe in for a count of 5 and then out for a count of 5. Don’t pause between the in and out breaths. You might think about waves going in and out on the shore – there’s no pause there between the in and out. Do this for 2 minutes and notice how you feel.
Grounding Breathing: This one is more of a visualisation. As you breathe in, push one foot into the ground feeling the solidness of the ground under you. Imagine pulling your breath up out of the ground, through your leg and into the space at the base of your spine. Hold the breath there for a count of 2 then push it back down through the other leg into the ground whilst you push that other foot down. Repeat this five or six times and notice how you feel.
The trick with this when you are triggered or activated, is to begin to breath mindfully like this as soon as you feel the activation. Don’t wait until your body has kicked in big time with the physiological response and your pre frontal cortex has already checked out! If you practise them regularly then when you need them they will come automatically without having to think about it.