Breath and the Adrenaline Response

As the 2018-2019 MIT school year and track season started, I received a request from Coach Halston Taylor to educate his track team about reducing performance anxiety before and during track meets. I’ll explain this in more depth later, but the simplest way to put it is there is an important connection between breath adrenaline and the startle response.

He gave me this request as the 80 member track team noisily setup up their mats and props less than a minute before class started then sat down in the rear of the room with his laptop open to observe.  This left me about 15 seconds to prepare the new lesson for the team.  For a second, I froze as the pressure of having to deliver a brand new lesson with no time to prepare in front 80 athletes and the Dean of Athletics overwhelmed me.  Luckily I knew what to do to calm down, so with a breath I relaxed and proceeded to teach the team to relax under the same pressure I ironically felt just moments before.  I spent 10 minutes at the start of class and at the end instructing them on breathing.  At the end of class Coach Taylor said, “We’ll see how they do, they have a meet this weekend,” then promptly walked out to attend to the team.

I lingered as I locked up the equipment wondering, did I communicate well? Did the team understand me? Coach Taylor is a prolific athlete with a serious foundation in anatomy. Did he agree with what I told the team?  I didn’t have time to think about it as my next class stated in 45 minutes across campus. This was Thursday evening.

On Friday afternoon I attended my Pilates Teacher Training session and the same subject came up as we discussed proper breathing during Pilates mat exercises.  I briefly told him about the track team and Coach Taylor's request and that I planned to revisit the discussion the following week.  Arnold Lee, a Master Trainer, referred to it as the “startle response,” which briefly involves a sharp inhale, an increase heart rate, and an adrenaline dump into the blood stream. Speaking with him gave me some clarity on the topic, which was great because a few days later a private client came for a treatment with very high levels of anxiety.

This person had been to the emergency room the week before with respiratory issues and a concussion that were made more complex because they were triggering childhood traumas.  It was clear that the best thing to do was reduce the immediate anxiety and grief before moving forward with anything else.  For that session, all we did was learn how to breath properly and I got instant feedback about whether or not it was working.  By the end of the session we were have such a good time laughing, joking and learning, that neither of us realized we had gone an hour over our appointment time. For me, this was a good illustration of how to reduce anxiety with deep breathing in the span of a few short moments.

Thursday came along and it was time to teach the track team again.  This time, eighty-plus students came into class and noisily set up their mats and props.  As the last of the students entered, Coach Taylor walked in and said, “Oh, they did great last weekend;” meaning the team competed well at their first meet of the year and did not succumb to the pressure. At the time, there were so many distractions in the room and I was so involved in mentally preparing to deliver a refined lesson on deep breathing, it almost didn’t register.

Overcoming Shock and Crisis

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of going through some type of crisis, shock, or trauma, hopefully there were people around to help you. In the best case scenario, you’ll be able to rely on the kindness of strangers and professionals trained to guide you through this situation.

However if you have the misfortune of going through a negative experience alone, I want to be sure you have the necessary tools to take responsibility for your own healing and treat yourself from the immediate after effects of crisis.

When you go through an emergency, there are several physiological changes that happen, which fundamentally alter the state of your consciousness, such as:

  • The reptilian mind, or brainstem, becomes hyper active.

  • Adrenaline shoots from your adrenal glands located above your kidneys and into your bloodstream.

  • Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone,, floods the bloodstream agitating all the cells in your body and preparing your muscles for fight or flight.

  • Your heart rate will begin to increase pumping blood into your muscles.

  • Blood flow will also reduce to certain internal organs, and the frontal lobe of the brain.

In preparation for the emergency, as the flood of neurochemicals and hormones saturates your cells, your perception will become altered. You may experience tunnel vision, the inability to see peripherally. You may become fixated on what’s happening directly in front of you to the exclusion of the rest of your environment. Some people experience hearing loss and are unable to perceive people speaking, loud noises, or sirens.

Exactly what will occur to you will, of course, depend upon your individuality and the circumstances. However, it is sufficient to say that the longer and more intense the shock affecting your system the more intense your body’s physical reactions.

If this remains unchecked for too long it may lead to cardiac arrest or worse. It is of the importance to get control over yourself during these intense moments of shock, however, the methods for doing so often fall far short of their intended goal.

The most effective way that we teach to gain control of your bodies functions under Extreme duress, is through slow conscious deep breathing.

First, deep breathing is one of the few tools that we almost always have access to, regardless of the crisis. This type of breathing involves more than just filling your lungs with air and exhaling. So, a step-by-step practice to teach the correct method follows.

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, slightly wider than shoulder width, with your feet parallel.

  2. Sit up, taking your back off the back of your chair (if you can) and make spine straight.

  3. Place your hands on your thighs. It should take minimal effort to maintain this position.

  4. Exhale out of your mouth and empty your lungs fully contracting your stomach and diaphragm.

  5. Next close your mouth and inhale slowly and deeply. As you do so, your abdomen should expand like a balloon being filled with air. Your shoulders and upper chest should remain still until the inhale is nearly complete.

  6. Once you have inhaled completely filling your lungs hold your breath and count to four slowly. You should feel as little strain on your body as possible.

  7. Then slowly exhale out of your mouth, allowing your abdomen to contract and empty your lungs.

  8. After you have exhaled, hold your breath and count to four slowly.

  9. Then repeat the steps 5-9.

Inhale… 2…3…4… Hold…2…3…4… Exhale…2…3…4… Hold…2…3…4… Repeat

When done correctly, you will feel your heart rate slow down, and your vision and hearing will return to normal. Any shaking in your muscles or nervousness in your stomach will begin to dissipate. The effects of the increased levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline running through your bloodstream will diminish.

Most importantly, you will be able to think clearly and your sense of well-being will begin to return.

At times, I have students who attempt to practice this deep breathing exercise during a critical moment of fear and shock, and they report to me that it did not work. The key to ensuring that this exercise works in-the-moment, is making sure that the deep breath you take fully expands your belly in abdominal region keeping your chest and shoulders still.

What you are doing internally when you take slow deep breaths while expanding your abdomen, is massaging all of your internal organs. Your kidneys, liver, spleen, stomach, small intestine, large intestines, adrenal glands, gallbladder, etc. are physically massaged by taking a deep breath inside your torso. It is this internal massage that will move lymph fluid, blood, and the associated stress neurochemicals through your body preventing them from overloading your mind, changing your emotional state from shocked and afraid to calm and in control.

If you would like more information about this technique and others to help you during the moment of crisis, or if you would like to learn further techniques on how you can gain control over your own emotions, contact us or attend a Trauma Sensitive/Informed Yoga class.

We are here to help you.