Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed that whenever I drive anywhere in Tāmaki Makaurau -Auckland- I immediately feel stressed. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my city for my entire adult life, it’s traffic woes being a major downside. And I suppose it doesn’t help that as I’m driving I’m telling myself how much I dislike traffic and how I wish I wasn’t sitting in my car driving across Tāmaki. Making myself wrong for being in the situation I am in is a sure-fire way to feel miserable.
But also, I’ve been noticing how as soon as I hop in my car, I start breathing right up in my upper chest. It’s like my puku (belly) switches off and my respiratory system goes into hyper-alert, WATCH-OUT-FOR-THE-LION mode.
I know what this is. I’ve been here before.
I spent the better part of 20 years living with anxiety on a daily basis and I have a deeply personal understanding of stress, it’s symptoms and triggers. I’ve worked hard to overcome my crippling anxiety, and as such I recognise it’s warning signs much earlier than I used to.
But also, my massage and yoga training have given me a deep understanding of the body’s sympathetic nervous system, or in everyday speak, ‘fight or flight’ mode.
This is when the brain perceives a threat, so it readies the body for action. It starts the heart pumping more blood to send to the skeletal muscles to get ready to run and it speeds up the breathing to allow more oxygen into the lungs. It slows down or stops digestion as the energy is needed elsewhere, and it releases large amounts of epinephrine from the adrenal glands. Fun times.
So there are predictable physiological reasons I’m feeling stressed when I’m driving.
My restorative yoga training this year developed my natural breath awareness, so the first few times I noticed my super-shallow chest breathing I just watched it.
It was frustrating in a way, to be so aware that my breathing was causing my stress, but not try to change it. But I got really curious about how long I’d been breathing like this in my car, and how it switched back to normal as soon as I got out of the car.
The next time I drove across the bridge to Wellpark College, I consciously told my puku to start breathing now, and focussed on expanding my belly like a balloon on the inhale and contracting on the exhale. Hākina, hāputa. Perhaps not the most ideal place to do some mindful breathing as I was also focussing on driving safely, but with each passing breath I felt my heart rate slow down, my breath slow down and deepen, and my body and mind relax a little more.
You don’t need to do a course or get a certificate to become aware of your breathing. The trick is to stop and notice. Those times when you are feeling your stress levels rise is a perfect opportunity to notice your own breath. You don’t even need to change your breath necessarily, simply noticing what’s going on is sometimes enough to cause a shift in stress levels.
However, abdominal / belly breathing is an easy way to switch off the ‘fight or flight’ response, and switch on the ‘rest and digest’ response (more on this later).
Try it now:
With your right hand on your puku and your left hand on your chest, spend a minute breathing normally and noticing where the breath is in the body. Notice the speed, the rhythm, the depth. Not changing it. Notice which hand is rising more on the inhale.
Next focus the awareness on the right hand. Notice the belly moving up on the inhale, and down on the exhale. Try to keep the left hand still, only the right hand moving. Do this for another minute.
Then release the hands, release the belly breath, and return the awareness to the natural breath for another minute. What do you notice? Has anything changed? How do you feel?
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Thich Nhat Hanh