What do you remember learning in ninth grade biology? I have a vague inkling of taking a few notes on what is now crucial information for my life’s work: the functions of the parasympathetic vs. the sympathetic nervous system.
But at the time, I had a delightful learning obstacle. My ninth grade lab partners were Aaron, a brilliant eccentric friend who went on to make the documentary King Corn, and quirky talented Trey, who grew up to be the lead singer of Phish. (In preschool with Trey, where we sledded on treys, I got mixed up and thought his name was “Sled”.) Let’s just say that Aaron and “Sled” and their inspired antics (think: unorthodox dissection of a piglet embalmed in formaldehyde) were far more compelling to me than what our gentle methodical teacher explained to us about how the hypothalamic-dictated autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. What I remember most from ninth grade biology are the two words “golgi apparatus,” riffed on by Aaron and “Sled” and two other witty guys at another lab table, which eventually evolved into lyrics of the Phish song.
Now, as an adult, I have come to appreciate what our soft-spoken, bearded biology teacher was trying to teach us. It is in fact really cool that our autonomic nervous system has two divisions, the parasympathetic, which is known as relax-and-respond, and the sympathetic, referred to frequently as fight-or-flight. A key component of the sympathetic often gets dropped in common parlance, which is freeze. As in: fight-flight-or-freeze. Modern day Americans, speeding around with our double hits of Starbucks and our road rage, feeling obligated to be in touch with anyone and everyone 24/7 on our devices, spend far, far too much time in our sympathetic nervous systems. Pumping out adrenaline and cortisol. Freezing when it’s all too much, and we shut down. This sympathetic system is extremely useful to tap into if you are about to be stabbed, or if you need to protect someone from an oncoming car or meteor. But for the average daily life events, we really would do much, much better operating from our parasympathetic nervous systems. Secreting endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine. In other words: marinating in wellbeing.
So how do we do this? How do we exit the code red reactive freakshow of our sympathetic nervous system and inhabit the calming state of relax-and-respond? One easy method, available to all of us at all times, and 100% free of charge, is breathing. Not just breathing the bare minimum amount of oxygen it takes to stay alive. But really breathing. Taking in air, this abundant manna, way past the shallow upper chest into the deep drum of the belly. Try it. Try breathing in through your nostrils, and letting delicious air travel down through your torso into your belly. Actually let your belly fill with air, so that it visibly and palpably expands. Try that again, counting the beats of your inhale through your nostrils. And when you exhale, do it so slowly that you double the count, exhaling for twice as long as you inhaled. Set your timer on one of your devices for one minute, repeating this 1:2 breathing. Next time, set it for three minutes, then five. You will experience for yourself the switch from the reactive fight-flight-or-freeze mode into the wellbeing of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you set your timer to do this 1:2 breathing a few times a day, you will notice yourself more frequently able to respond to life, versus reacting. Keep it up, and you will find yourself much more comfortable in your very own skin.