~by Meganwind Eoyang
Sometimes events unfold, and we find ourselves hurled into fear, anger or confusion survival reflexes. These reflexes help us survive, since we actually DO want to know how fast the huge bus is coming at us and do we have time to jump out of the way? Yet, sometimes we react with all the power of our survival reactions when the situation is not actually threatening our lives. How do we shift out of the biological reactions for survival so we can have more choice about how we respond to what is happening?
You can take 2-3 slow, deep power breaths: take a pause. To try it out, stand up and put the flats of your hands against the sides of your ribs (not down on the waist, but up on the ribs). Now take a breath that is so deep you can feel your hands being pushing out a little bit to the sides. Let the breath out slowly and repeat twice more. This helps us recover our ability to respond by choice for several reasons.
This is one of the skills central to the Making Peace with Anger 6-month program led by Meganwind Eoyang and Nancy Kahn. Please contact Nancy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Meganwind at 707-775-7178. We’d love to invite you to join the program and explore using the powerful energy of anger to fuel a life of effectiveness and peace. We’ll usually meet the 1st & 3rd Saturdays monthly from 1p-5p at BayNVC in Oakland (though our second meeting is Saturday, October 31st from 10a-2p).
One reason the power breath helps is that it releases us from the attention “lock” that kicks in when we perceive danger. Ordinarily, any person or animal is constantly scanning their environment, looking or listening for food, beauty, love and danger. If the person sees danger, all the usual scanning ceases, and the attention locks on the source of danger, trying to figure out how big, how dangerous, how fast, etc. When we breathe very deeply and slowly, we start moving the diaphragm which is attached the bottom ribs all the way around, and to the front of the 12th thoracic vertebra (the spine bone where the bottom-most ribs attach). Connected to the front of that same vertebra is a cable about the width of your thumb (take a look at your thumb to see how big the cable is) which extends down to the front of your thigh bone, just below the big bumps at the top of the bone. This cable is called the psoas muscle (“so-as”). If you move the 12th thoracic vertebra, you also begin to move the legs. Attached to the back of that vertebra is a kite-shaped muscle called the “trapezius” which extends all the way up your back to the shoulders; so moving that vertebra starts moving your shoulders and arms. Further, the trapezius then extends all the way up to attached to the base of the skull; so moving the 12th thoracic vertebra also starts moving your head. Thus the biological “lock” is physically released.
Further, taking slow, deep breaths can actually slow the heart down a little bit, instead of sitting in the quick, shallow, sometimes even panting breaths that pump us up into strong anger or fear.
The third reason is that current research in social neuro-science reveals that the part of the brain that generates strong emotions like fear and anger (two almond-sized and –shaped bits of the brain called the amygdala), sends us into nearly automatic reactions to help us survive. The parts of the brain which are involved in thinking, reasoning and choice are in the front of the brain. Research and brain mapping show that it takes approximately 7 seconds to allow us to shift from our reactive amygdala and into the thinking and choiceful pre-frontal part of the brain. The blood vessels to the pre-frontal brain actually constrict when the amygdala engages, so you cannot ‘think.’ After 7 seconds, those blood vessels open again. The power breath gives us the 7 seconds we need to shift from our reptilian brain to the ‘new’ brain. In our grandparents’ generation, they taught people to ‘count to 10 slowly,’ another way to gain that crucial 7 seconds.
Another way to think about the pause provided by taking 2-3 power breaths, is that it’s like taking a ‘time-out.’ However, since we will then turn our attention inward to connect with ourselves and our needs, I like to call it taking a ‘time-in.’ Instead of running over and over what the other person did wrong in our minds, we focus our attention on the physical movement of our breath (which helps bring us into the present moment), and then begin exploring to discover what needs of ours – or of the other person’s – might be operating in the situation.
So when things get intense, whether with fear or anger or confusion, let yourself have 3 slow, deep breaths – and think again!