This may be a somewhat technical post but most of my clients and friends have found this piece of information very useful.

Scenario 1:

I get annoyed about something or just plain passionate and my opinion comes out stronger than recommended in polite circles. The atmosphere becomes heated and a fervent discussion ensues. A well meaning colleague with a pacifying nature says: ok, let’s take a deep breath people…

What happens next?… The colleague gets blown off planet Earth. 

Scenario 2:

A work colleague with a dynamic nature sometimes struggles with anxiety. She tends to go into overdrive and takes longer to calm down and relax. She has been told breathing helps… So she does breathing exercises before bed wondering why she gets more and more wound up.

Why, what happens?

Our body and nervous system have an innate capacity to self-regulate. What does it mean?

Our nervous system consists of (please bear with me):

The Central Nervous System (CNS):

  • the brain
  • the spinal cord

The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS):

  • somatic nervous system (muscles, reflexes)
  • autonomic nervous system (internal organs) – our focus for today:

The Autonomic Nervous System has two branches:

Sympathetic Branch (Accelerator) – causes the organs to prepare for action

Parasympathetic Branch (Break) – causes the organs to slow down and rest

The following happens:

The following happens:

  • Breathing rate goes up
  • Blood pressure increases 
  • Heart rate goes up
  • Pupils dilate
  • Sweating increases
  • Muscles tense up
  • Stress hormones enter blood stream
  • Digestion slows down
  • Saliva dries out
  • Breathing rate slows down
  • Blood pressure decreases 
  • Heart rate goes down
  • Pupils contract
  • Sweating decreases
  • Muscles relax
  • Stress hormones leave blood stream
  • Digestion goes up
  • Saliva increases

The two systems act together to maintain an equilibrium and are responsible for our mental and physical resilience, our superb ability to spring into action and relax when needed. They’re reciprocal, when one is up, the other is down. 

Action means running away from a lion, catching a bus, preparing for an exam or passionately defending your point of view. During such discussions it’s more than likely that my cheeks will pink up, my pupils will widen, palms will curl into fists and my breathing rate will go up…and just then my colleague will tell me to take a breath… and get blown off planet Earth. She will inadvertently ask me to further stimulate my body into action because an in-breath is a natural activator for our nervous system. 

But…breathing is a fairly regular occurrence, you might say. We have been breathing in and out since time immemorial. Yes, but now that we are asked to pay attention to our breath because we are so stressed, we sometimes get inadvertently overzealous and start to control or manipulate it a little. It’s completely natural, the meditators in the room can attest to that. And we tend to get more attentive to the in-breath and let the out-breath slide. And it is the out-breath that relaxes us. 

So what to do and what to say?

In a heated discussion, feedback is more meaningful e.g.:

  • Say “People, we are getting intense here, is it ok for everyone?” – Notice it or call attention to it without judgement. Awareness is naturally curative, when aware, people tend to adjust/shift themselves.
  • Say “People, we are getting intense here, I am getting overwhelmed or I am not sure if I am following the conversation.” – Self-disclosure is incredibly powerful as it points to the impact which acts as feedback and regulator. 

When it comes to the breath:

  • Don’t manipulate other people’s breathing for them. You may ask them to notice it but unless you’re a yoga teacher, therapist or a breath worker, a sentence like ‘Find your breath’ tends to sound patronising and annoying to people. 
  • If you want to calm down, make your out-breath longer than your in-breath, counting may help i.e. count to 3 on the in-breath and count to 5 on the out-breath. Repeat a few times. If it works for the military, it should work for the rest of us.  
  • If you want to relax before sleep – as above minus counting and instead start relaxing consecutive body parts on a long out-breath: forehead, eyes (they always tense up), cheeks, jaw (tense, tense), neck, shoulders (you may need to release them a few times), back, chest, arms, palms, belly, hips, legs, feet… My life-long insomniac husband now falls asleep by the time he gets to his belly, it’s unbelievably effective. 
  • Allow yourself to sigh… it’s such a powerful out-breath… I bet you didn’t know that! 


Something to bear in mind:

Our body has a natural ability to self-regulate unless we have suffered trauma (small or large) and our nervous system is out of sync. We seem to be activated all the time, or exhausted, depressed or appear numb or frozen, or depressed but anxious at the same time, tense, scan for danger, etc.  


“In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness” by Peter A. Levine (PhD) is a helpful and compassionate guide to healing trauma. 

Seek professional help e.g. Somatic Experiencing Association has a list of available practitioners, click here.