Zebras and Ulcers

In the 1980’s and 90’s a scientist named Robert Sapolsky did some interesting research in the fields human and animal biology. One of his interesting observations was the fact that, despite being hunted regularly by lions, zebras don’t get ulcers. This may seem like an arbitrary fact, but when you think about the fact that many humans struggle with ulcers, it became an interesting question to explore why zebras don’t. Sapolsky found this question so interesting that he even wrote a book.

What did Sapolsky find out? Well, apparently if you record the stress response of a zebra, you’ll see it spike as soon as it sees a lion, the zebra will run away, and if it gets away, it’s stress response quickly drops off. In contrast, if a human being is chased by a lion, they will run away, and if they escape, they will proceed to worry endlessly about the lion reappearing, and the stress response will not lower.

So, where the heck am I going with this? Well, while human beings have progressed a lot as a race, we’re still very tied to our primal biology. We don’t have lions chasing us, but we have deadlines, social anxieties, important obligations, and tense relationships to worry about.

Today we’re going to look at one of the most basic skills for dealing with stress– we’re going to look at breathing. That’s right, you heard me, breathing. Breathing has always seemed like a very basic skill to me and not something that should really need to be taught, but as I’ve coached people, I’ve found it’s one of the most valuable skills I can teach.

What does deep breathing do?

So, you’ve probably heard the suggestion before to take a deep breath when you are stressed, but why do we suggest that? Why does breathing deeply actually help with stress?

Well to be honest, we actually have no idea why deep breathing works, but here’s what we do know. Our minds and bodies are interconnected and very directly affect each other. If we think happy thoughts, our body is more likely to release happy hormones like serotonin and oxytocin which in turn makes us physically act giddy, smile, and show positive body language. Likewise, if you intentionally smile when you don’t feel happy and try to emulate happy body language, you will start to actually feel happier.

Deep breathing plays on this strange mind-body relationship. When we breathe deeply, it calms our autonomic nervous system. Our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing all slow down, and our body begins to produce less stress hormones. In otherwords, for some unknown reason, breathing deeply literally makes us less stressed.

Why is deep breathing useful?

When we experience stress, our body primes itself to do one of three actions, running, fighting, or freezing. There are many scenarios in which one of these actions is not only useful, but it will save your life, but when it comes to a big deadline or dealing with a stressful coworker, these options may be a bit useless.

Deep breathing moves you out of that fight, flight, or freeze state of being. When you breathe deeply, you force your body to slow down, allow more bloodflow to your brain, and give yourself a chance to assess the situation more objectively. In many cases, just remembering to stop and breathe will make the entire problem go away. This is because instead of having just three options (fight, flight, freeze) to deal with the problem, you have a whole array of possible responses and suddenly, the issue gets a lot easier.

What kind of deep breathing is good?

I’ll be honest on this, I don’t have a specific form of breathing I think is best. In my experience, the kind of breathing you do doesn’t matter much as long as you are breathing in deeply and allowing your body to relax.

My personal preference is place a hand on my stomach and then breathe deeply and slowly into my stomach– if you do it correctly, you’ll feel your hand move back and forth with your breathing– once I have taken a few breaths, I’ll start focusing on the my body and identify areas where I feel tension from stress such as my shoulders– I’ll then intentionally relax each tense area of my body as I breathe. Intentionally relaxing your muscles further helps your body relax, because of the mind-body effect. I’m making my body act like it is relaxed, so, in turn, my mind is relaxing too.

Feel free to explore the internet. There are a lot of different deep-breathing exercises and while there is no perfect way to do deep breathing, some methods might suit you better than others. Everybody is different, and I’m not a fan of telling people what’s best for them.

In my experience, the most important part of deep breathing is the mindfulness. You have to catch yourself when you are stressed and force yourself to breathe. At times, this can be very challenging to do. If you struggle catching yourself when you are stressed, ask friends to call you out on it. Tell, them to point out when you are stressed and need to breathe. Over time, it will be habit and get easier. Until then, do your best with it.

image provided by David Dennis


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