by Kathi Szabo

Last week I wrote about stress and that actually, stress can be a good thing if we can increase capacity.

Eustress, or good stress, is when we have plenty of pressures, but we feel challenged. We have space to work through them. We have higher levels of capacity.

How do we increase our capacity?  We engage the parasympathetic nervous system.

Two States of Being

There are only two states of being, a powerful state, which is when we are engaging the parasympathetic. When we are relaxed and restful. The second is primal, which is when we are in the sympathetic or fight, flight or freeze.

We are ALWAYS in one or the other. Think about that. We are either in fight mode or relaxed mode. There is nothing between.

You are never in both states at the same time. Throughout our days we continuously move between these two states. But creating space, creating capacity, we meet our pressures and keep stress to a minimum. We want to be in a powerful state.

When stress kicks in, when we have more pressures than we have capacity, we start to feel anxious. We feel overwhelmed. We cut ourselves off from our strengths, our logic, and ability to solve problems. Many of us slip into fight mode. We work through the anxiety, perhaps losing our temper with those around us and being short with anyone who may try to help us. We make mistakes because we are in a highly agitated state.

Others may freeze or flee. The overwhelm is unbearable and they break down. Either in tears or by quitting or just walking away and doing something else. But often walking away, unless we are walking away to relax and engage the parasympathetic nervous system, doesn’t help. Flight or freezing just puts off the pressures and we continue to stay in this agitated state.

Choose Powerful not Primal

The primal state does not allow us clarity of our thoughts. Our mind is more focused on keeping us safe, out of mortal danger (that does not exist) than thinking creatively. Allowing us to use our intelligence to figure out the best way to get the job done. When the mind is in a powerful state, when we are relaxed, we have more space and our brain can focus its awareness on opportunities that can assist us in our work.

When we have feelings of overwhelm, how can we pause, not freeze, but pause, and consciously connect to our parasympathetic nervous system? How can we consciously send clues to our brain and body to relax and create capacity?

Just Breathe

One of the simplest ways is to simply “just breathe.” What we tell our kids to do is exactly what we need to do in order to create more capacity, more space.

Long deep slow breaths send a signal to our brain that we are safe. That we can “rest and digest” or more simply, relax. There is no mortal danger and thus we can use our prefrontal cortex, our logical and rational part of the brain, rather than our amygdala, our fear center designed to keep us from danger, to rationally look at things. Deep breathing brings more oxygen to the brain which also helps us think clearer.

There are numerous breathwork techniques, but we will highlight today one that most yogis call…

Belly Breathing

Place your hands on your belly. Take a nice slow deep inhale through the nostrils and allow the breath to fill your belly, allowing the belly to expand. When you feel you can’t take in any more air, pause, hold for a moment, and then slowly exhale through the nostrils, letting the belly contract back toward the spine.

This is also called diaphragmatic breathing. Using the diaphragm, letting it expand during our inhales. When you are filling your belly, think of your diaphragm as pulling down, expanding space.

Try to make the exhale the same length as the inhale. Do this for about 5 minutes the first time and then as you do it more frequently, work your way up to 10 minutes.

This exercise can be done at your desk, standing upright, sitting comfortably in a chair, or you may even lie down. It is the breath that is at play here, sending a signal to our brain that we are safe and calm, engaging in rest. Afterward, come back to your tasks and notice the refreshed feeling, having more capacity to think.

Get Moving and Get Outside

Another way to move out of primal is to go outside and take a walk. Two things happen here.

First, when we engage in light cardio movement, like a walk, not a run or another intensive workout, we disengage the brain from the sympathetic nervous system.  The second thing that happens is that studies show being outside in nature reduces our cortisol levels, which reduced cortisol levels has been shown to engage the parasympathetic nervous system.

If we are working at home, getting outside for a break is easy! Maybe take the dog for a walk. She will appreciate the exercise and attention. It will also allow you to step outside and let nature and walking do their thing and help you relax.

At the office, it may not be as easy to get outside. But, we can get up from our desks, take a walk around the office area and maybe head to where there are windows of the outdoors. It doesn’t have to be a scenic view, just the blue sky can help.  Combining this with breathing deeply, we can surely start to signal the brain to relax and create capacity.

The next time you start to feel overwhelmed. When your pressures seem to be way more than the capacity you currently have and your stress levels are rising. Create more capacity. Send a signal to the brain to relax. To rest and digest. To engage the parasympathetic nervous system.

You will find more space just beyond.