When we’re anxious our bodies undergo changes to prepare for a fight-or-flight situation. It’s an evolutionary response. Picture the moment a deer hears the snap of a twig nearby. The deer’s heart rate goes up, breathing becomes shallow, and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released.
Some people recover physically and emotionally much more quickly after a stressful situation — a trait known as resilience. It’s ideal that our bodies return to normal shortly after an anxiety spike. After all, chronic stress hurts our bodies and our minds.
Becoming resilient in the face of stress could be as simple as paying attention to your own bodily responses, according to a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychology.
“Often times we’re worry junkies. We feel anxious before our big presentation, we nail the presentation, and then believe we need that same level of anxiety to fuel our next big project,” explained the study’s lead author Dr. Lori Haase, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Sometimes we skip feeling accomplished altogether and just worry about the next big thing standing in our way.
Researchers found that highly resilient people, who have emotionally and physically demanding jobs, react to stress differently than those with low resilience. Participants laid inside an fMRI machine while wearing a face mask. When researchers pushed a button, conditions inside the mask made it more difficult to breathe.
Highly resilient participants had a great deal of anticipatory stress leading up to their mask closing. The fMRI showed they were paying close attention to what would happen next, but when their breathing did become difficult, there was little activity in the parts of the brain that increase physiological arousal. It’s as if their minds said, “Something is going to happen. Okay, it’s not a big deal.”
On the other hand, the low resilient participants had little anticipatory stress. They weren’t closely monitoring their bodily signals before breathing became difficult in their masks. Once it did, they overreacted, activating all the parts of the brain which increase physiological arousal. This kind of reaction makes it difficult for the body and brain to return to normal after a stressful event has passed.
“To me, this study says that resilience is largely about body awareness and not rational thinking,” the study’s senior author Dr. Martin Paulus, the scientific director of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla., told the New York Times. “Even smart people, if they don’t listen to their body, might not bounce back” in the face of a stressful event.
But researchers offer up a pretty easy fix for this. Dr. Hasse says all you have to do is spend a few minutes a day focusing on your breathing. Just quietly pay attention to your breath in and out, without reacting at all. With practice it could “teach you to have a change in breathing when anxious but be less attached to that reaction,” Dr. Haase explained, “which may help to improve your reaction in a stressful situation.”
Who would have thought that simply sitting with our breath could make us more resilient? Well if you’ve ever done breathing exercises to meditate or relax, you know how simply focusing on breathing slowly and fully can stop worry in its tracks. We can’t focus on all the little stressors that we try to untangle all day long if we’re busy breathing. Getting full and slow breaths is also relaxing — your muscles may start to feel like pudding.
Worriers like me recognize right away that we react to stress in the body. We feel our heart rate increase or breathing change and we think, “Something must be wrong!” Of course, it actually doesn’t mean anything because feelings aren’t facts.
There is a way of being consciously aware of our bodily sensations without setting off a chain reaction of panic responses. That means accepting the fact that stress happens, but not every event is a life-or-death situation. We’re not in constant danger. We no longer live in caves. Our odds are pretty good.
We’re highly likely to get through a stressful event just like we’ve gotten through all the others in our life. And that should inspire confidence, if not resilience.
Fresh air photo available from Shutterstock