Bearing up under the weight of responsibility
When I first heard the term ‘the weight of responsibility’ it immediately struck a chord. Responsibility is indeed a crushing weight, the handling of which needs our constant attention. Like the body builder who gradually adds more and more weights to build the size and strength his/her muscles, the more we are exposed to handling the weight of responsibility the ‘stronger’ our ‘weight’ bearing abilities become. Not that the ‘heaviness’ itself ever goes away. No, it is ongoing, and it is relentless and the sooner we learn to bear up under the ‘heaviness’ associated with responsibility the better it will be for our health, wellbeing and our performance.

In my own case, when the StressEraser project finally got the nod, I committed to it wholeheartedly, despite my anxious heart telling me that this was a bridge too far. There were many similarities to walking out of the parallel bars upon first learning to walk with my peg leg. The game-changing difference between my futile attempts at mastering walking with the peg leg while I was at the same time trying not to fall – as compared to having a single-minded focus on walking – similarly applied. I had to step beyond my Performance-Arousal tipping point, trust my body and not think of falling by keeping my focus on my single-minded goal to measure the effects that deep breathing has on the neurobiology of performance. How exactly I was going to go about doing this was the unknow that kept me awake at night.

The importance of having a single-minded goal
The big difference between my anxious heart telling me to find an alternate career, after I had seemingly made no noticeable headway for 7 years following my accident, and my anxious heart telling me not to take on the StressEraser project was my single-minded goal of wanting to understand how breathing impacted the physiology of performance. Keeping this single-minded goal ‘alive’ in my brain allowed me to ‘look beyond’ my current stress levels to where I wanted to be. As I fine-tuned the research protocol and Gabriell took over from Diane and the equipment arrived from the UK and pilot testing started, my nerves started to settle.

After the data collection was finished, we had to analyse and interpret the data. This was a labour-intensive and stress provoking process that took us a good 2 years to fully come to grips with before we were able to write the first paper. Prof Wayne Derman, who originally obtained the funding for the StressEraser project, mentored us in this process. Given the novelty of the research our first paper spent 2 years in the review process before it was finally accepted for publication. Next on the agenda was Gaby’s PhD thesis and then on to publishing further papers. This project ended up spanning a total of 9 years, but it was well worth the time, effort and expense. Not only did Gaby graduate with her PhD and the 5 StressEraser papers are still highly cited today, it also enabled me to forge a research niche for myself.

The StressEraser research taught me a whole lot. Not only was deep, slow HRV paced breathing very effective in managing anticipatory anxiety, it also had a significant positive effect on cognitive performance and on subjective relaxation ratings. I found out that the primary reason why deep, slow breathing works so well is because the heart follows the breath. Note it is not the heart rate that follows the breath, rather it is the heart rhythm that follows the breathing rhythm. This is so, because your heart rate speeds up as you breathe in and your heart rate slows down as you breathe out. A fast, shallow breathing rate leads to a fast but ineffectual heart rhythm. Ineffectual in that a fast heart rhythm panics the brain. In contrast, slowing your breathing rate down to 6 breaths per min brings another rhythm into play – the alignment of your heart rhythm with your blood pressure rhythm.

Coherence in our 3 internal bodily rhythms
What this translates into is that the heart is not following the breath as such, rather it is following the Primate brain, because it is your Primate brain that sets the deep, slow breathing rhythm. Furthermore, the Primate brain is now also aligning with the Mammalian brain, which then leads to coherence of these 3 bodily rhythms. These 3 bodily rhythms cycle at around 10 seconds, therefore in order to synch these 3 bodily rhythms we have to increase the force and length (to about 3-4 seconds) of our in-breath and slow our out-breath to about 6-7 secs so that our combined in-and out-breath is about 10 seconds long. The feedback that your Primate brain and your Mammalian brain gets from a heart rate that rises and falls according to the aligned 6 breaths a minute rhythm is serene and as such is restorative in nature.

Why does the 6 breaths a minute work so well, and why for instance does 10 breaths a minute or 3 breaths a minute not work? This is because your blood pressure (BP) feedback loop operates on a 10 second rhythm. Unlike your breathing rhythm and your heart rhythm, your BP rhythm cannot be overridden by your Primate brain. It operates on this 10 second rhythm – regardless of Primate brain interference – to allow your blood pressure to be stable over the long term, despite wide short-term fluctuations each time your heart beats or you have an emotional response. 

Note that your BP rhythm is independent on your BP, i.e. no matter how high or low your BP is, it still operates via a 10 second feedback loop. Say for example your BP drops, your BP feedback loop corrects this as follows: 1) baroreceptors inside your arteries fire that 2) sends a message to your brainstem, 3) different sets of nuclei in your brainstem will interpret and 4) relay the signal to your blood vessels to constrict them 5) and to your heart to speed your heart up to 6) thereby increasing your BP. This whole feedback loop has built-in delays so that it ends up taking ~10 second in duration. This feedback loop keeps cycling and manifests as a 10 sec BP rhythm.

Engaging in 5 minutes of deep, slow breathing just prior to a stressful meeting, an exam or a sporting event will thus help you to be calmer and more focused, and positively impact your reaction time and your performance. This occurs because your heart–brain-body loop becomes highly synchronised after about 5 minutes of 10 sec breathing. This enables your Primate brain to switch to a state of heightened awareness instead of engaging in over-thinking and in overriding of your Mammalian brain. Keeping in mind that your Primate brain is the one that instructs your Mammalian brain that then executes whatever thoughts you have in your Primate brain. Hence the importance of thought control.

If this is done correctly, the feedback from your coherent 10 second heart rhythm to your Primate brain and your Mammalian brain will indicate that all is well in your body & environment and there is thus no need to activate excessive bodily resources to cope with potential challenges. This is the perfect time to be following your heart because you know it is your Primate brain setting the rhythm of your heart, rather than a stressor. Needless to say, following your heart when your heart is reacting to a stressor will lead to panic. Do not follow it there!

Powerful as deep, slow breathing is in calming your heart, clearly there is a deeper level that needs to be appreciated. The breath itself is only effective when it aligns with your BP rhythm, meaning it is the alignment of the heart rhythm with the BP rhythm that is the effective ingredient underpinning keeping calm. Our BP rhythms are under dominant Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) control, which necessitates working with the SNS in addition to the parasympathetic vagal nerve. Previously I took to running/cycling in the mountains to modulate my excess SNS drive to manage the ‘weight of responsibility’ of working towards my PhD. Indeed, exercise refreshed my body and cleared my head like nothing else, but now that exercise robbed me of what little energy I had, I was desperate to find a more efficient way to regulate my sympathetic nerves and my heart rhythm.            

Part 4 to follow.