Written by: Lily Breuning Ellis, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
I love the term ‘response flexibility’. I saw it in a book I am reading titled ‘The Myth of Normal’ by Gabor Matè. It spoke right to my soul as this is the very thing I have spent the last 20 years cultivating. Many years ago when I arrived at the grand age of 40, like many people, I reflected hard on my life. I made some huge decisions and implemented necessary changes to ensure I started living my life in the way I chose rather than continually reacting to the contexts and circumstances I found myself in. I became determined to build my ability to choose a response and to colour my life with positive emotions and approaches. It has been a 20-year journey of rewiring my brain and I am happy to say that I have become way better at creating my life deliberately, including responding rather than reacting to challenges. As I look back few things stand out that I will share over my next few articles. Let me start first with the basics:
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
Become breath intelligent
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ― Viktor E. Frank
Even though we all breathe in order to stay alive, not all of us breathe to thrive. What this means is simply this: when we are stressed our breathing differs from when we are relaxed. If we are stressed over a long period of time, our brain-body system assumes that life is very threatening and has to be on alert all the time. Our breath now takes on a permanent quality of alertness that constantly puts us on the edge of fight-or-flight. The breath is fast and shallow. It elevates the level of cortisol and adrenaline in our system. Over time this wires our brains in a distinct way, influences our thinking and behaviour and before you know it you are living a reactive life, wishing that things will change so you can relax and recover.
But it doesn’t change. Life is life – unpredictable and chaotic. What we can change however is how we respond. But in order to choose that response we need to create the space Viktor Frankl refers to.
Breath intelligence means we become aware of how we are breathing, adapt our breath to an optimum breath for the current conditions, and use our breath as our first and most powerful tool to manage our autonomic nervous system and create some space in intensity. When our bodies forget how to brake, we can use our breath as a handbrake.
What does optimal breathing look and feel like?
It is free, unrestrained, and supports the body and context optimally. Our lungs draw the life force in deeply and expand optimally on each inhale. Our heart rate speeds up. We surrender the breath back on our exhale, each mini sigh signaling our entire brain-body system into a more relaxed state. Our heart rate slows down. The difference in heart rate is termed heart-rate variability or HRV, and is one of the biggest predictors of resilience and longevity. In other words the difference in heart rate between the inhale and the exhale. A stressed breathing pattern has no HRV as the shallow exhale does not instantly signal the body into a slower state.
How do we breathe when we are in a relaxed state?
It is slow, deep, and measured. There is an emphasis on the exhale, and movement in the body around the lower ribs and abdomen rather than neck and shoulders. It brings our stress levels down and activates our thinking rational brain rather than our emotional and reactive brain. It enables us to respond to life, take deliberate steps, and navigate ourselves through crisis in a way that is affirming, calm, and deliberate.
Build your HRV by practicing a breath technique called Coherent Breath. Inhale slowly for 5 counts and smoothly exhale slowly for 5 counts. Continue for 5 minutes. Repeat at least 3 times per day.
Each time you practice this you bring down your stress levels considerably. They will remain lower for a significant period after the practice. Regular daily practice slowly changes our brain-body system by doing the following:
a slower deeper breath becomes our natural breath
tones the vagus nerve to produce a faster relaxation response on an exhale.
stress levels are lower over the course of a day.
Breath intelligence is the fastest, most powerful way to manage your anxious reactions. This is how we build our ability to choose a response. Response flexibility is freedom and growth.
Lily Breuning Ellis, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Lily Breuning Ellis is a resilience coach and trauma facilitator. She lives a holistic approach to dis-ease and has a deep understanding of how our neural wiring can limit our life experience. Her learning from the many people she has supported over the years, as well as her own life, is that with new information and determination we are able to rewire our brain to enable powerful living, positive thinking and joyful high performance. Her life journey is dedicated to growing and learning through challenges, combining wisdom and knowledge and sharing this through coaching and facilitation. She works in multiple organisations as a resilience/presence coach and breath-work facilitator.