We all have our share of stress. It seems to be an unavoidable aspect of everyday life in our fast-paced culture. Most of us can deal effectively and still thrive in the face of daily life stressors. But how do we deal with the off-the-chart stress of high-conflict relationships and family breakdowns? I hope this post may provide an effective tool.

Stress is mostly an automatic reaction to something our brain sees as threatening our survival and well-being. It is important to note that this can and does happen at times without our conscious knowledge—our brain, which is constantly scanning for danger, acts on its own to protect us. And strangely, this “danger” doesn’t even have to be real. Once the threat is detected, our autonomic (automatic) nervous system mobilizes chemical and electrical signals to various body parts for flight, fight, or freeze. In most of our approximately 200,000 years of evolutionary history as homo sapiens, this was a temporary phenomenon that lasted only minutes or hours. Many of us in our modern society and culture are experiencing chronic stress over weeks, months, and years. This has been connected to negative personal health impacts such as chronic disease.

When our autonomic system mobilizes, it’s called the sympathetic nervous system. To disengage, we need to mobilize the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the state of rest and digest. Essentially, we must convince our brain that the threat is gone, and we are safe, so our mind and body can return to normal functioning. Of course, this is challenging when that “threat” is ever present or ongoing, as can happen when experiencing family breakdown and conflict.

Relaxation techniques can be effective in engaging the parasympathetic system. Some examples are deep breathing, yoga, meditation, tai chi, chi gong, exercise, and prayer. Let’s explore one that I’ve personally found helpful, which is deep breathing.

I like deep breathing as a relaxation technique because it is easy and can be done anywhere and anytime. I find it amazing that something this simple can be so effective. For me, there are a few key elements. Closing my eyes facilitates calm and concentration. I focus on making my exhale longer, even twice as long as my inhale. I’ll do multiple breathing sequences per session. As I’m breathing, I repeat the mantra “I am safe” and concentrate deeply on the many ways I am indeed very safe. Simple and easy.

I often do relaxation breathing before I go to sleep or get out of bed in the morning. After some informative reading, I’ve developed my own relaxation breathing sequence that I call the 5-7-9-9. I start with 5 seconds of breathing in (nose), hold for 7 seconds, breathe out for 9 (mouth), and hold with no air in my lungs for 9 seconds (I’ve heard this state is called the “god spot”). My effectiveness at the calm and controlled completion of multiple sequences gives me a big clue into my state of being.

There are certainly things we can do to mitigate stress before it triggers our autonomic nervous system. Still, it’s inevitable that we will experience periods of significant stress from time to time. This means we need to manage our stress actively. Our ability to do so has profound implications for the quality of our day-to-day lives. In an ideal state of BE-ING, we can quickly let go of stressful experiences and find equanimity. By necessity, this means we need to be in a parasympathetic state. We need to feel safe and relaxed. Hopefully, focused breathing can help us get there.

When you notice your stress, I hope you can take charge and give deep breathing a try.

With loving kindness,

Coach Billy