Friday, February 01, 2008

Lower Your Stress with Just Three Deep Breaths!

Got stress? Have you multi-tasked your way right out of the joy of being fully present and fully alive? Is it possible to get off of this merry-go-round of complexity and busy-ness, and by so doing, come away more successful, healthy, and energized?

The answer is a hearty Yes! But first let’s face the dilemma. Traffic jams, technological change, information overload, time-crunch, relationship struggles, and other stressors can jeopardize our vitality, our creativity, our productivity, and our joy while costing individuals and businesses a fortune.

According to a 2001 report from the American Institute of Stress, U.S. businesses pay 300 billion dollars a year in job-related stress costs.

Unmanaged stress can influence the onset of heart attacks and strokes, gastro-intestinal problems, diabetes, insomnia, headaches, and depression, to name a few. Studies show that 75% to 90% of all visits to primary care practitioners are now known to be stress-related.

What is Stress?

When I am doing one of my Three Deep Breaths “Stress-buster” workshops, I often ask participants to tell me how many of the following scenarios cause them stress: having a significant fight with their spouse or boss, taking a vacation on a south pacific beach, being late for a critical meeting, and having finally moved into their dream home.

Most of them will say that only two of those, the fight and being late, cause stress.

But science will state emphatically that all four could cause stress, because stress occurs when any significant change – positive or negative – happens to the mind, body or environment in which we live.

If we are alive, we will have stress.

Whether it’s dis-stressful on our mind, body, or spirit or actually beneficial has a great deal to do with how we respond.

Stress is one of the best opportunities to become wiser, stronger, and more flexible. Every elite athlete knows that he or she must put stress on the body and mind, training regularly to grow strong and more adaptable.

Managing Stress Is A Balancing Act

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for all those systems that happen involuntarily within us: our heart rate, our breathing, our perspiration, the dilation of our pupils, our digestive system, etc.

There are two complementary systems in the autonomic nervous system — the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic can be called the “Red Alert System,” or the “Fight or Flight” System. The parasympathetic, which does the opposite, is the “Green System,” or the “Rest and Digest” system. When one is turning on, the other is turning off.

When a zebra is chased by a lion, the red alert system is turned on, with everything in the system delegated to the chase: explosive muscles, increased heart rate, pain-killing chemicals, hyper alertness — all to elude the lion and avoid death.

(Read Stanford researcher/author Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for all the details. It’s one of the few scientific books on stress that reads like a great historical novel.)

But when you are sitting in rush-hour traffic already ten minutes late for a critical appointment, your mind also delivers the thoughts, “I’ve got to get going, or I’m finished!” And guess what? Your autonomic nervous system has not evolved enough to make a distinction between death by a lion and death by your imaginary thoughts.

So, your Red Alert lever is also switched on, pumping hundreds of chemicals and hormones into your system so that you can fight or flee. But it’s inappropriate to leap out of the car and bite the fender of the lady in the SUV in front of you or sprint down the freeway screaming (although I’m sure these behaviors have been tried by some!). So, you just sit there with the heartbeat rising, and the perspiration flowing.

Let’s say you eventually make it to the critical appointment and the client himself is late. Ah, now you can relax and let the “Rest and Digest” part of the autonomic nervous system clean up the mess in your body, right? But the phone rings and another client informs you that they are going with your competitor. Red Alert! Then a memo arrives hinting at a company-wide layoff. Red Alert! You finally get to go home at the end of the day to relax but you find bills in the mailbox, your kid’s flunking algebra, and your spouse has a headache. Red Alert, Red Alert, Red Alert!!

Are you getting the picture here? You are on Red Alert 24/7.

There is an imbalance between the Red Alert/Green Alert systems in the autonomic nervous system. The stress response/recovery ratio is off kilter and causing suffering to the body, mind and spirit.

What To Do?

In the past 30 years, there have been well over 2000 peer-review studies of mind/body medicine, as well as writings by leading researchers in the field, such as Herbert Benson, Greg Jacobs and Ellen Langer of Harvard; Robert Sapolsky of Stanford; Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin; and Paul J Rosch of New York Medical College to name a few.

They show us that mind/body techniques, which focus on proper breathing, deep relaxation, and mindfully choosing our perspectives, can actually bring balance to our autonomic nervous system.

They teach us that mind/body exercises can be far more valuable than any symptom-treating pill for modern-day stress.

Since the autonomic nervous system is involuntary, how can we interact with it directly and effect its workings?

Most people have not been trained to lower their pulse rate or blood pressure or change their body temperature at will. And yet everybody can immediately impact their involuntary nervous system through breath work.

Breathing is the one direct interface between our voluntary and involuntary systems. It is the one activity that can happen without our conscious effort and yet we can also choose to control it consciously, right now.

You can use a simple practice, the Three Deep Breaths, to balance yourself anywhere, any time. Right in the moment, even in the heat of anger or upset, the first breath can calm and soothe your body, the second breath can restore the tranquility of your mind, and the third breath can reunite you with the spirit.

The Three Deep Breaths Practice

The Centering Breath

  • Exhale completely to relax the body and empty the lungs of air. It will support you to place your hands on your abdomen, to be aware that the breathing includes the belly or center of the body.
  • Inhale, noticing that, after a complete exhalation, how deeply and naturally, the inhalation follows.
  • As you continue to inhale and exhale, whether you are sitting or standing, let your body become more symmetrical and aligned, feet flat on the ground, and upper body erect, as if someone is suspending you from a string through the top of your head.
  • Visualize gravity flowing through you, the weight settling underneath of your feet, leaving you weightless, yet grounded.
  • Simply focus on the breath and notice its involuntary nature, how it happens effortlessly without your conscious energy or intellect. Inhale naturally through your nose. Exhalation can happen through nose or mouth. Notice how the inhalation expands the belly out and the exhalation recedes it in toward the spine.
  • Give this breathing your full attention. No need to do anything – just watch the breath. You will notice that your breath will tend to get slower, deeper, quieter, and more regular.
  • Allow your attention to become present in the moment. You will have a sense of “witnessing the internal and external sensations and thoughts without getting plugged into them. Your choices and thoughts will become more purposeful and creative.
The Possibility Breath

As you continue with the Centering Breath, simply access (breathe in) the “best me I can be.” Another way to think of it is to breathe in “my highest purpose.” This may change from situation to situation.

On the way to work it could be, “I’m a real team player, giving my job 100% focus and energy.”

Or, when you’re entering your home at the end of the day,“I am a loving, joyful, nurturing parent” or “I am a compassionate and considerate spouse.”

The important point is to breathe the possibility in with deep diaphragmatic breaths, imagining it penetrating every cell in your being.

The Discovery Breath

Breathe in the question, “Are my next words or actions going to come from an intent to defend or from an intent to learn?” Is this going to be a fight to be right or a wondrous adventure of discovery? Breathe in the Mystery, the magic of life, and let go of judgments.

Research shows that the keys to managing stress are to be able to control your response to life events, to treat stressors as challenges, and to have a sense of commitment to something larger than your ego (i.e. family, service, life philosophy, faith, etc.)

The Three Deep Breaths do exactly that. The Centering Breath gives you control over your response. The Possibility Breath gives you a higher purpose than your ego. And, the Discovery Breath turns a stressful situation into a learning opportunity.

When To Do The Three Deep Breaths

Anytime you remember, you can do this simple powerful practice! It can be done anywhere:

  • When you fasten your seat belt
  • Sitting in rush hour traffic
  • Waiting in line
  • Waiting for an appointment
  • Before a meeting
  • Before entering your home
  • When the phone rings
  • When you boot up your computer
The Three Deep Breaths opportunities are endless! But it is the doing of it, in the practice, that counts! And the good news is that it doesn’t take time, it takes “intention.” In addition, the practice is simple, joyful, and energizing.

With this practice you are balancing the autonomic nervous system. And, simply by deep diaphragmatic breathing, you will give yourself up to seven times more oxygen than shallow chest breathing, providing great vitality to the entire system. And since your brain uses at least 20% of the oxygen you breathe, increased clarity and focus and creativity will be yours. Why wait? Do it now!

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Thomas Crum is a seminar leader, peak performance coach and best-selling author of Magic of Conflict and Journey to Center.

His new book, Three Deep Breaths (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc) teaches us how to get off the madness of the information-overloaded, technology-exploded, and relationship-eroded world and emerge with our true authentic self, prosperous and revitalized. This is precisely the journey that Angus, the harried Everyman, embarks on in Thomas Crum’s parable, Three Deep Breaths. The modern, stressful life of Angus opens up to a field of limitless potential.

With forward written by mega best-selling author, Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul series), Three Deep Breaths, is an easily digestible parable that provides the reader with the means to transform work and life. It is a precious gift for those looking to turn the rat race into a wondrous adventure.

For more information on Tom, his programs and products, visit his website, www.thomascrum.com, or call 585-924-7302.

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