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’Tis the Season — Give Yourself a Breath

By Jiji Pollock

’Tis the season for celebrating good cheer with family and friends! ’Tis also the season for ramping up stress levels. According to an American Psychological Association survey, holiday stress is distinct from other stressors at other times of the year. Work stress doesn’t disappear, yet a doubling demand of holiday duties and family responsibilities make emotions run high. No need for “bah humbug.” Find your happy place—it’s time to take a breath!

Dashing through all the “extras”

It happens at this time of the year—dashing through your day at a fast and furious pace trying to get all the “extras” accomplished. Going furiously fast activates your sympathetic nervous system into fight-or-flight mode via your phrenic nerve. Your phrenic nerve triggers the adrenal glands. Fight-or-flight mode causes a release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. This is why sitting in traffic during rush hour trying to make it to dinner on time may cause agitation, increasing your heart rate.

Having relaxation time sets your parasympathetic nervous system in motion via your vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve is responsible for keeping your heart rate and blood pressure low and also helps with learning and memory.

Yes, sometimes it’s tough to kick up your feet at this time of the year. But the key to health and performance is balancing out both systems—your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both systems make up your autonomic nervous system.

Measuring your balance

Having your heart rate consistently in overdrive from being stressed out lowers your heart rate variability (HRV), called low-frequency HRV. HRV measures your variation of heart beats, measuring your cardiovascular health and the balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Consistent low-frequency HRV for long periods of time indicates a strong link for cardiovascular disease or too much stress in your life.

Allowing your heart rate to lower increases your HRV, called high-frequency HRV.  High-frequency HRV readings are linked to better brain function. When you’re stressed out, it’s tough to think clearly. How do you get a balance with holiday stress, any stressful situation or even during intense exercise?

Catching your breath

Inspiration, or expanding your lungs by breathing in air, is the sympathetic nervous system increasing your heart rate. That’s your phrenic nerve in action. Your breathing controls your heart rate. When you’re anxious or nervous, your heart rate increases and you may begin to hyperventilate, feel your palms or armpits sweat, or perhaps feel like you’re about to vomit.

Expiration, or exhaling air out of your lungs, activates your parasympathetic nervous system. That’s your vagus nerve’s influence, which is responsible for relaxation. (Your heart rate decreases.) Slow-paced deep breathing has been used in studies and clinical practice as an intervention for pain and anxiety.

Sync it! Find your happy place

The key is syncing your breath with the pattern of your heart rate, called your respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Your RSA is the cycle of breaths linked to your heart rate. Getting your RSA in tune or finding your happy place through breathing may help balance out effects of stressful situations. A 2017 study at the University of Kentucky by Matthew Russell et al. showed that slow-paced breathing using your diaphragm improves psychological and physiological functioning, increasing your high-frequency HRV.

How to find your happy place

Here are few evidenced-based methods to help you find your happy place. The key is breathing a cycle of five and half breaths per minute finding your optimal balance or inhalation and exhalation to your RSA. All have the same effect of increasing your high-frequency HRV. Make sure you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

4-2-4 Method

  • Inhale for four seconds.
  • Exhale for two seconds.
  • Rest four seconds.
  • Repeat for a one-minute cycle or longer.

5-5 Method

  • Inhale for five seconds.
  • Exhale for five seconds.
  • Repeat for a one-minute cycle or longer, if possible.

2-3 Method

  • Inhale for two seconds.
  • Exhale for three seconds.
  • Repeat for a one-minute cycle or longer.

3-2 Method

  • Inhale for three seconds.
  • Exhale for two seconds.
  • Repeat for a one-minute cycle or longer.

The beauty of your breath is that you can take it anywhere with you at any time for any stressful situation. Finding your breath and balance only takes a minute. So be kind to yourself this season and give yourself a breath.

Video credit: EvgeniyShkolenko, Getty Images
Photo credit: bernardbodo, Getty Images; April30, Getty Images; martin-dm, Getty Images; Jelena Danilovic, Getty Images; ljubaphoto, Getty Images; Prostock-Studio, Getty Images


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Jiji Pollock

Jiji Pollock has been in the health and fitness industry for over 25 years and is passionate about helping individuals maintain health through movement and sustainable healthy habits. She works as an Exercise Physiologist, Health and Human Performance Advisor with the Institute of Motion. She began her passion for health and fitness as a group fitness instructor and recreational triathlete as an undergraduate student. Pollock is a certified personal trainer (former Master Trainer at 24 Hour Fitness), holds a M.S. Kinesiology degree and is currently a PhD Candidate in Health and Human Performance at the Concordia University of Chicago. She enjoys swimming, biking, and running and enjoys rock climbing with her three sons. Her second passion is cooking and dark chocolate.