Day 4: Creating your Resiliency Roadmap
Thanks for coming back again for the next turn on our resiliency roadmap! If you are just joining us, feel free to go back and take a look at our
- Day 1 (signs and symptoms of stress),
- Day 2 (situational factors that cause stress), and
- Day 3 (identifying coping strategies we already have in our toolbox).
Remember, our goal with this series is to help you build your own personalized resiliency roadmap. So, each of you may resonate with difference aspects of each topic, and that is perfectly OK!
Today, I want to suggest more tools for your coping plan toolbox with some specific exercises. When I first envisioned this series, I thought I could put all my recommendations and resources all in one post. But I quickly realized there are too many techniques I want to give you to have just one post on this topic! So, today, I want to focus on the foundation for most of the other techniques I will recommend--diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing. In my next post (on Friday) we will build from there with some additional techniques.
Have you ever watched a baby breathe? They naturally draw breath down into their lungs expanding more of their bellies than their chests. If you stop and pay attention to your own breathing without changing anything, is your chest doing the moving or the belly? The goal of diaphragmatic breathing is to down regulate your sympathetic nervous system by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.
Para-what you say?! No worries, you are not alone. However, I do want to emphasize that many of the techniques we recommend are based on their known physiological impact to your body. Under stress, our sympathetic nervous system is revved-up and activated, producing our fight or flight response. This is fine if we need to react in the moment, and then the stress is over. However, when stress is long lasting, like the COVID-19 situation or having a chronic illness, our bodies stay activated. That chronic activation and readiness state produces many of the symptoms of stress we discussed in part 1--that's why we don't feel very good--fatigue, trouble sleeping, racing thoughts, irritability, etc. So, we want to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our rest response. Then we can sleep better, our stomachs feel better, we are less emotionally activated, etc.
With that physiological explanation in mind, let me outline the steps to diaphragmatic breathing.
- Get comfortable where you are sitting.
- Put one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly. Breath normally--which of these hands is moving--your chest hand or your belly hand?
- Now, focus on drawing air down into the bottom of your lungs so that it is the belly hand that is doing the moving.
- First, get that pattern down without trying to change the rhythm of your breathing. Then, let's work to slow or pace your breathing. The goal is not to take a huge deep breath--doing so quickly can actually spike your heart rate in a way that further activates your sympathetic nervous system. Rather think of the goal as filling your lungs down to the bottom and SLOWING the breathing.
- Try this to help slow the pacing:
- Inhale through the nose for 3 seconds
- Pause and hold for two seconds
- Exhale through the mouth for 5 seconds
Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing resources
My favorite free resource for paced breathing is this free breath pacer website. The site is simple and easy to personalize. If you notice three lines on the top right side of the webpage, you can click on that to personalize the settings. The default is usually a 4 second inhale, no pause, and a 6 second exhale. Play around with how long the inhale is, how long the pause is, and how long the exhale is. Many bodies respond well to the 3 second inhale, 2 second pause, 5 second exhale as I suggested above. However, some bodies relax more with a longer or shorter breath pace.
The only guidelines for maximizing sympathetic nervous system activation are (1) be sure to have at least a brief pause after the inhale and (2) be sure the exhale is longer than the inhale. The breath pacer also has an option to pause the breath after the exhale before starting the next inhale, but that is really optional in my opinion. If that pause feels good for your body--do it! If not, skip it! The key is that long, slow out breath.
Here is an additional series of videos that discuss how diaphragmatic breathing works, how to practice diaphragmatic breathing lying down, and how to practice diaphragmatic breathing while sitting. I'd encourage you to begin a routine practice of paced breathing, as it will be easier and more effective as a stress management tool when you really need it.
In preparation for some new tool suggestions on Friday, my homework for you is to try the breath pacer website and play around with the length of the breath to find the settings that feel most relaxing to your body. Then, enter them on this next portion of your roadmap document below.
I'd also love to hear from you how this feels if you haven't tried it before. Sometimes it feels amazing from the very beginning, but sometimes it feels awkward or no different when you first try it. If you felt amazing, relaxed, and calm, I'd love to hear that--but, if you felt awkward or weird or not anymore relaxed, that is definitely OK when you are first trying it. I'd encourage you not to give up. Keep trying on a daily basis to see if your body can get into a rhythm, and it feels less strange or effortful. You'll eventually be able to engage your calming parasympathetic nervous system.
See you on Friday!