The power of the breath: our Being Hunted nervous system

Think of a time in which you were overcome with stress. How did your body feel? How was your breath?

These can be helpful cues to recognize when we are entering a stressed-out-fight-or-flight reaction. Instead of riding that wave, try taking an approach from your WiFi router: unplug from the situation for a little bit. Focusing on the breath can be a powerful anchor back to calm. Once you are feeling more aware of yourself, try processing the thoughts around the stress. What is real and what is a story?

This technique and awareness can be strengthened through meditation.  Techniques like body scanning and breath awareness can attune you to your body in such a way that you are able to feel your nervous system’s shifts and recognize when you are entering a fight-or-flight state.

The state is cultivated by our body to respond to things like lions chasing us, or hunting for game to feed our families.  Now, however, many bodies default to those same heightened states for being late for an appointment or navigating social situations (no, I will definitely not be replaying that one time I was awkward to you for the next 5 years…). 

Fortunately, this connection between our breath and our Relaxation (parasympathetic) and Being Hunted (sympathetic) Systems is a two-way street. The breath is a cause and an effect and visa versa.  When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we can tap into the power of deep, slow breathing to counter the automatic reaction of a shallow, quick breath.

When we talk about ‘stories,’ you can even think of it in terms of what story your body is telling you and ask if it is true.  Your body is telling you that you are being hunted by lions, is that true?  It is telling you that all body systems must be limited (hello, constipation) and you must stay in heightened vigilance to stay alive.  Is your life at risk because you didn’t get as much work done in the office as you ‘should have?’  I sure hope not. 

This sounds like a strange, almost tongue-and-cheek example, yet it can be a very regular experience for some.  Despite how it may seem like our bodies are working against us, we do have a simple and highly effective way to bring the body back into the reality of the situation (namely, that death is not assured if our joke does not land as intended among a group of strangers).  Awareness of breathing rate and depth can act as a gauge for the racing thoughts we may be unconscious of.