Saturday, October 22, 2011

STOP the Lizard from Running your Show

The key to acute stress management is to STOP our primitive reptilian brain from controlling our actions. As Timothy Gallwey says, that would be like letting a dime store calculator (our reptilian brain) tell our supercomputer (our human brain) what to do.

Our primitive reptilian brain knows of only three strategies when faced with a threat - fight, flee or freeze.

Most of our missteps are the result of not stopping the lizard in us from running amok. The results are usually very disappointing.

We have several tools to consciously engage our human brain i.e. to switch from lizard mode to human mode.

Timothy Gallwey suggests that one tool when faced with acute stress is STOP. Instead of letting your lizard brain spring into action, taking along your whole body, we:

S – Step back. Imagine you are a helicopter or a fly on the wall observing what is happening to you and others in this situation. Stepping back gives us the detachment to see situation in a larger perspective. Often, just by stepping back, the situation looks less threatening or the solution becomes self evident.

T – Think. Ask what really is going on?  What is causing this situation that brings you acute stress?

O – Organize. Make plans to deal with the situation. Choose one of the plans.

P – Proceed. Take action to deal with the situation.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Breathing is our Body's Tuning Knob

Our Autonomic Nervous Systems or ANS controls the vital functions of our body such as our heart beats, breathing, digestion, contraction of blood vessels, contraction of muscles, body temperature, and so on.

Our ANS does all these work that keeps us alive without us consciously controlling or even being aware of it.

When our five senses pick up stimuli, it first goes to our reptilian brain and activates our ANS. When it senses danger it prepares the body for the fight, flee, or freeze response. For example, contracting muscles on our skin that gives us goose pimples. Blood is drawn to our heart, making our extremities like skin and fingers feel colder.

Fortunately, there is still one body function that we can still consciously control. By consciously controlling our breathing, it is possible to manage of our ANS and all the other functions like heart beats, and contraction of blood vessels.

Our breathing is like our body's tuning knob.

When we deliberately slow down our breathing rate through rhythmic breathing, we also slow down our heart rate, and lower our blood pressure.

Rhythmic breathing is the simple yet effective key to manage our bodily reactions to acute stress.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anchoring your Rhythmic Breathing

In her book, The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley tells of the ingenious technique of Charles Humes, a Toledo city police officer.

Humes found that every time he turns on the siren of his patrol car, adrenalin rush would cause his hands to sweat, shriek with a squeaky, high pitched voice, and other classic distress symptoms. His speech and his thinking would be incoherent. Humes was a danger to himself and to others.

Humes learnt rhythmic breathing which greatly reduces his distress symptoms.

Humes also devised a clever way to practice his rhythmic breathing. He would play a sound recording of a patrol car siren while practicing rhythmic breathing. He would practice rhythmic breathing together with the siren recording for 10 minutes everyday.

After a month, every time he turns on the siren in his patrol car, he automatically goes into rhythmic breathing which calms him down.

In effect, Humes has anchored his rhythmic breathing with the whine of the siren. The whine of the siren which used to put Humes in distress, is now the trigger to automatically go into rhythmic breathing.

Can you find such a natural anchor for situations that distresses you?

Try the anchoring method Humes uses.

Be in the Moment

When our body feel the effects of adrenaline like racing heart rate, flushed face, cold sweat and so on, we often unconsciously turn our attention inwards. This is often accompanied by negative thoughts.

Our internal dialogue quickly descends into a vicious inward spiral and we lose our connection with our surroundings.

Going into our heads may be useful in certain situations such as when taking a written examination, reading a book, or playing a chest game. But being lost in thoughts is certainly not an appropriate mental state when facing serious physical emergencies such as fighting a fire, or trying to resuscitate an unconscious victim.

The first step in avoiding losing ourselves in internal dialogue is to be conscious of our drifting into this state.

Techniques involve deliberately choosing to turn our attention outwards i.e. get out of our heads. We deliberately make ourselves more aware of and connect with the things in our surroundings.

To be externally focused is known by various names such as being in the moment, present, in uptime, and being mindful.

Learning to switch to external focus at will is an important skill in dealing successfully with acute stress.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Visualize your Breathing Rhythm

When breathing with the diaphragm, use visualization to regulate your breathing.

I visualize waves coming in onto the beach and going back out to the sea.

When I breathe in – taking in air through my nose while gently expanding my belly – I visualize a wave coming ashore. I let the wave come all the way in ashore as I draw in my breath.

When I breathe out – releasing air through my nose while gently pulling in my belly – I visualize a wave retreating back into the ocean. I let the wave go all the way out to sea as I release my breath.

I find this visualization helpful in getting the rhythm of breathing with the diaphragm because:

·        The serene imagery of waves gently tip toeing ashore and retreating has a calming effect on me

·        The imagery of waves allows me to follow the natural rhythm of a wave arriving and receding on a beach as I breathe – this feels more natural than regulating my breathing by counting the seconds as I inhale and exhale

·        As waves have its own powerful, stately rhythm, my breathing rate slows down to be in synch with its rhythm.

Waves imagery works for me. Some other visualization may work better for you. Use what makes you feel most natural and comfortable.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mindful Breathing

Breathing with the diaphragm or diaphragmatic breathing is one of the set of techniques you can use to quiet your negative self talk or what Timothy Gallwey calls our down putting "Self 1".

Here’s how to breathe with the diaphragm

Breathe in through your nose while gently pushing out your abdomen. You should be able to feel your abdomen moving outward.

Breathe out slowly through your nose while gently pulling your abdomen inward to empty your lungs.

Breathing with the diaphragm is known by various names such as diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, conscious breathing, stomach breathing, belly breathing, abdominal breathing and rhythmic breathing. The US Green Berets elite force calls it "combat breathing" and "tactical breathing".

When we were newborns, we naturally breathe with our diaphragm but most of us lose this as we grow up.

As we grow up we resort to shorter, rapid, shallower breathing with the chest which is more like gasping and panting.

Breathing with the diaphragm has both mental and physical benefits.

After years of shallow panting, deeper breaths seem unnatural and feel awkward. Deep baby breaths now need conscious effort. And here is the thing - this conscious effort, takes our minds away from the negative self talk that is chattering in the background at the moment of truth.

When we breathe with our diaphragm, our breathing rate is slower. And with this, our heart rate, and blood pressure also goes down. We automatically calm down.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quiet your Negative Self Talk

Timothy Gallwey, in his classic The Inner Game of Tennis spoke of our two minds. He labelled our analytical and often critical mind, “Self 1”. Gallwey labelled the mind that is in our body, our muscle memory as “Self 2”.

Gallwey calls “Self 1” the “teller”, and “Self 2” the “doer”.

Often our body or “Self 2” is well rehearsed, intuitive and experienced, and knows what to do.

However, “Self 1” likes to tell “Self 2” about what to do, what is wrong, and is more often than not, very critical and harsh towards “Self 2”.

This results in inhibitions, self doubts, and confusion that degrades performance.     

Gallwey recommends activities that keep the noisy “Self 1” occupied, so that “Self 2” is left alone to perform at its best.

In tennis, Gallwey recommends closely watching the ball, its stitches, and the way it is spinning.

Another way to quiet “Self 1” is to turn its attention to our breathing. Besides the physical benefits of taking deeper breaths, focusing on breathing has positive effects on our “inner game” of peak performance.