Resilience is the ability to cope well with difficulties and to bounce back from setbacks. While some people are naturally more resilient than others, resiliency can also be intentionally developed.
Breathing Deeply may be a surprising topic for a Resilience Tip. But it came up in a recent exercise session and a few thoughts clicked. (My apologies in advance to any MDs who cringe at my PhD summary of articles I found on this topic!) Many of us have defaulted to "shallow" breathing, or chest breathing. Consciously shifting to "deep" breathing, or belly breathing, even for brief periods during our day, can be extremely beneficial. In a normal, healthy, cycle, our circulatory system (blood flow) brings nutrients and ample amounts of oxygen into our capillaries, and the lymphatic system carries away destructive toxins. The lymph system relies on breathing and body movement to move the waste fluid around. Not breathing deeply or not moving regularly can contribute to health issues such as weight gain, muscle loss, high blood pressure, fatigue, and inflammation. Shallow breathing decreases oxygen flow and delivery. Deep breathing is also the fastest way to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. Chronic stress, or an overworked sympathetic nervous system, can lead to a variety of undesirable conditions; and, can be counteracted by the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing can flick the switch from high alert (sympathetic) to low (parasympathetic) in seconds.
Regardless of the quality of this mini synthesis (or your level of boredom for biology), it seems quite clear to me that deep breathing has wide and significant benefits; generally, and in times of adversity when we want to respond resiliently. Studies suggest that deep breathing techniques help relieve symptoms in depression, anxiety, and other stress-related syndromes. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all hinder highly resilient responses. Another wonderful thing about deep breathing is that you can practice any time, any place. Sitting in traffic, standing in line, attending meetings (particularly the ones that could have been organized better!). The places that can easily lead to feeling stressed are now also opportunities for deep breathing. Combining deep breathing with exercise (including walking) multiplies its benefits.
In addition to the physical and emotional health benefits of deep breathing, I began to think about the parallels of deep breathing and deep thinking. There are times when we must act quickly, there are times when we need to call into action our sympathetic nervous system. And, there are many times when we are faced with a challenge or difficultly that does not require an immediate response. How often in these times do we default to "shallow" thinking rather than "deep" thinking? How often do we take the time for a deep consideration of alternative ideas, a deep examination of the pros and cons of these days, and then ensuring that we have discarded the "waste" from our thinking so as not to clutter our system (for example, documenting ideas that were nixed and why, so as avoid additional discussions on alternatives previously reviewed and rejected). Even if you practice deep thinking often, are there additional places you can apply this practice? For example, if you are a good deep thinker at work on technical issues, how about applying deep thinking to interpersonal challenges?
So, for increased resilience, remember deep breathing. Deep breathing for overall better health. Deep breathing to reduce stress, and so be more focused and available for effective problem-solving. And deep thinking for more thorough and so more effective addressing of difficulties and challenges.
Carolyn S. Tal, PhD
Psychologist and Consultant
Working with individuals and partners in developing resilience and related issues.