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January 2022 Issue
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Take a breath

When under stress in the outdoors, focusing on your breathing can calm your nerves and clear your mind. By Samantha Sutton

How we breathe has a big impact on calming our nervous system. 

I remember being in Tararua Forest Park and taking a wrong turn. When I realised my mistake, my heart rate increased and I was immediately stressed. It’s easy to become panicked when off-course in the middle of nowhere. 

In these situations, our brain searches for a way out. In my physio clinic, this is where I discuss breathwork with my patients; breathing, paying attention to each breath, noticing the depth and rate. 

Breathwork has two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. 

The sympathetic nervous system is the ‘accelerator’; the ‘fight or flight’ response to threats. Physical and mental changes occur, such as an increased heart rate, shallower and faster breathing and blood rushing to our extremities. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is the ‘brakes’. The vagus nerve controls this part of the system and is further separated into the dorsal vagal complex and the ventral vagal complex. 

The dorsal complex kicks in if we don’t achieve fight or flight, instead ‘freezing and flopping’. This is known as shutdown. 

The ventral complex also slows down the body, but is less extreme in that it activates a relaxation response that helps the body to grow, heal and digest. It also helps us seek out and connect with others. 

This is where breathwork plays a role. When you breathe out, slowly and mindfully, the ventral vagal complex is activated and relaxation starts. You can avert the freeze and flop response and will be able to problem-solve and think more clearly. 

I use the 4-4-4 breathing technique in my clinic: inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds. Repeat four times.

By specifically paying attention to exhaling, both body and mind become calmer and we’re less likely to make irrational decisions.

So, next time you feel a sense of panic rising – at not reaching the hut before the weather worsens, if you’re adrift in the bush or have hurt yourself – take a moment to calm things down with a few mindful breaths.