Breathing and Stress Management

In today’s fast-faced, anxiety-driven world, stress management has become paramount not just for individuals faced with excessive stress in their daily lives, but also for the owners and managers of businesses of all sizes. Researchers now believe that excessive stress is associated with 60-80 percent of all visits to doctors. Not only are numerous health problems associated with unnecessary tension and stress, problems which are reflected in our growing health-care costs, but businesses of all kinds are faced with the increasing use of “sick time” by employees at all levels and the overall loss of corporate productivity.

There are, of course, many powerful tools for stress management, for turning on our parasympathetic nervous system–our “relaxation response.” One of them–healthy breathing–is often overlooked. In fact, most of us take our breathing almost entirely for granted, not realizing that the way we breathe influences every aspect of our lives. The paragraphs that follow–which are taken from The Tao of Natural Breathingexplores some important issues associated with stress–especially the negative emotions often associated with it–and how healthy, natural breathing, can help us understand and free ourselves from these emotions.

From The Tao of Natural Breathing

“As troublesome as they are in our lives, it is clear—at least sometimes—that what we call “negative emotions” have important “survival” value. Many of our negative emotions are simply signals that something has gone wrong in our lives or that some action is necessary to avoid a potential problem. A student’s anxiety about an upcoming exam, or an executive’s anxiety about a financial report that is due the next day, can play a beneficial role in stimulating appropriate preparation, as long as the anxiety does not become so excessive that it causes fear and a lack of concentration. A woman’s anger toward a man who physically or psychologically abuses her may motivate her to leave the relationship or to find a healthier relationship with someone else, as long as it doesn’t become so strong that she becomes violent. A mother’s anger toward a teenage daughter who stays out all night may be what is necessary to motivate both mother and daughter to try to communicate with each other in a new way. Our lives are filled with many examples of how our so-called negative emotions, as long as they do not become excessive, can provide important information about what is happening in our lives—information that can help us take intelligent actions on behalf of ourselves and others. Unfortunately, many of our negative emotions seem to quickly reach a point where they have no apparent solution, and we frequently find ourselves unable to learn anything from them or to do anything about them. These emotions leave us with pounding hearts, contracted muscles, poor digestion, constipation, tension, and so on. Over time, these conditions can become chronic and can consume the energy we need for healing and for inner growth. Once these conditions become habitual, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, designed to put the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system, will have little power to bring about more than temporary relief—unless we can learn how to consciously turn it on for longer periods of time.

Learning to Turn On the Parasympathetic Nervous System

To learn how to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, it is useful to know something about its organization. The neurons for this system reside mainly in certain cranial nerves, such as the vagus nerve, coming from the brain stem, and in the lower-back region of the spine. The parasympathetic ganglia do not run down the spine, but instead are located near the organs that they influence. Impulses coming from these ganglia reduce the heart rate, dilate the blood vessels, increase digestive peristalsis, and constrict the air passages in the lungs, and thus help the body slow down and restore itself. How can we intentionally turn on this system, our relaxation response, without the outside help of psychologists, massage therapists, and so on? The key is our attention. We know from experience that when we are tense or “stressed out” our attention—directed by the sympathetic nervous system—automatically focuses on the supposed cause of our tension, the compulsive thoughts and feelings that arise in relation to it, or the particular unpleasant physical symptoms we are experiencing. As a result, our experience of ourselves becomes so narrow that we cannot even imagine an alternative. To learn how to relax in such situations, we need to learn how to work actively with our attention, to widen it to include the parts of ourselves that are not in the grip of the negativity we are experiencing. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is through self-sensing. According to Ernest Rossi, a pioneer in the field of mind/body interaction, “You simply close your eyes and tune into the parts of your body that are most comfortable. When you locate the comfort you simply enjoy it and allow it to deepen and spread throughout your body all by itself. Comfort is more than just a word or a lazy state. Really going deeply into comfort means that you have turned on your parasympathetic system—your natural relaxation response.”[i] As we shall see later, natural breathing plays an important role in learning how to go “deeply into comfort,” and thus in learning how to use our awareness to harmonize the aggressive and restorative functions of our nervous system.[ii] What’s more, since natural breathing massages our internal organs and relaxes our lower back, it has a beneficial influence on the parasympathetic nerves and ganglia in these areas. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good at sensing ourselves and have little awareness of the extent to which our perception and behavior are conditioned by emotions such as fear, anger, and anxiety. We have become so accustomed to high levels of stress and negativity in our lives that we take it as “normal,” not realizing the tremendous toll it takes on our health and vitality. The noise produced by this stress makes it almost impossible to hear the quiet, ever-present intelligence of our own bodies. Unable to experience this inner intelligence, we exacerbate our situation by seeking quick relief through excessive stimulation of some kind—alcohol, drugs, tobacco, caffeine, food, sex, television, and so on. Sometimes, when we wake up for a moment to the senselessness of our situation, we may try to deal rationally with the stresses we face. But our minds by themselves have little power to “figure out” effective solutions—especially in an “information society” that floods our consciousness with negative news and images from around the world. The end result is the accumulation of more and more tension, a sense of helplessness, and the eventual appearance of various chronic symptoms and ailments in our lives—many of which are not just the result of stresses we face, but also of the way we try to escape them.

Coping with the Effects of Stress Is Not the Solution

Unable to figure out effective solutions to the many stresses in our lives, we have over time learned various ways to “cope” with their effects on us instead. Some of us, for example, simply vent our negative emotions, especially anger, on others, believing that this is good for us. Recent studies suggest, however, that venting our anger causes us to get more angry, not less, and thus increases our health risks.[iii] What’s more, such an action simply spreads our negativity to others, adding to their own problems. The expression of negative emotions, however, is probably not nearly as prevalent as finding ways to avoid experiencing them. As children, some of us learned how to use fantasy and repression to shut ourselves off from the painful feelings of contradiction that we felt when our parents did not seem to accept us as we were, but rather demanded that we “grow up” according to their image. As adults, many of us have learned how to “swallow” our negative emotions and take refuge in what we consider to be our more positive ones. We have learned how to suppress our negative emotions in order to function in what we believe to be a reasonable way based on our self-image. But we know by the scientific law of conservation of energy that the neurochemical energy of these emotions cannot be destroyed—it can only be transformed. And we also know, if we look carefully, that this energy is often transformed into kinetic or mechanical energy that acts, without our awareness, on the nerves, tissues, structures, and movements of our bodies. The repression or suppression of emotions manifests itself not only in our postures and movements, but also in tensions buried deep in our bodies, tensions that consume our energy and undermine our physical and psychological health. By learning how to sense these tensions in ourselves, we will eventually come face-to-face with our mostly unconscious emotions of anger, worry, fear, anxiety, and so on. The goal is not to get rid of these so-called negative emotions—this would be both impossible and undesirable—but rather to find the courage to experience them fully, to open them to the transformative light of impartial awareness. From the Taoist perspective, when we become fully aware of our negative emotions without amplifying them or trying to defend ourselves against them, the neurochemical energy they activate in us can be transformed into the pure energy of vitality. As the Taoists might say, “clouds, rain, and lightening are as necessary to our environment as sunshine and calm. Without a harmonious balance of both kinds of weather, nature would become barren.” It is through our breath, especially through natural breathing, that we can begin to discover this dynamic harmony in ourselves. It is through deep, comfortable, natural breathing that we can begin to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and thus the process of healing—of becoming whole again.”

Copyright 1996-2015 by Dennis Lewis. This passage, from The Tao of Natural Breathing, may not be used for any commercial purpose.

[i] Ernest Lawrence Rossi, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing (New York: Norton, 1988), pp. 173-74.

[ii] Another effective way to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system is through special movement and awareness practices such as tai chi and chi kung. Among many other benefits, these practices can help release unnecessary tension in the back, especially in the spine, where the main neurons of the central nervous system reside. It is my experience that people with frequent lower back pain are often the same people who have trouble not only relaxing but even admitting that they need to relax. When carried out in the correct way, tai chi and chi kung increase relaxation not only by making the spine more flexible, but also through the deeper breathing that they promote.

[iii] For further information on the subject of anger, see David Sobel and Robert Ornstein, “Defusing Anger and Hostility,” Mental Medicine Update: The Mind/Body Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1995).

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