Breathing Through Butterflies

Guest Blogger: Anderson York (August 2021)

On average, we take about 20,000 breaths every day. Some of us do this more gracefully than others, but then again, not all of us experience stressful events or live in stressful environments day in and day out. Did you know that even the most miniscule stressor can change how we breathe? In ideal situations, healthy breathing aims to balance our body’s biochemistry and engage our nervous system in ways that help us feel calm and connected. But, in response to stress or threat, our body naturally shifts to shallow overbreathing (hyperventilation). Overbreathing can actually intensify our vigilance to threat, but part of this response can also cause us to dissociate from others and also disconnect us from our sense of self.

When we hear the term butterflies, most of us think of those colorful insects that like to flutter around flowers. But in the sense of worry, it’s a common moniker for stomach jitters. As innocuous as the term butterflies sounds, these sensations often push us into a state of despair; most often caused by, or accompanied with, overbreathing. This shift into the deeper, emotional area of our brain can make us vulnerable to avoidance, even in a time when connection to others would appear to be exactly what we need.

When we worry about something, we tend to spin these thoughts around and around in our head; sometimes to the point where we become emotionally (and sometimes physically) overwhelmed. This sensation of being overwhelmed is actually a result of our body’s stress response which affects changes in our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and blood vessels and airways in our lungs. Although stress hormones are the primary culprit for these changes, rapid and shallow breathing can perpetuate and sometimes complicate this response.

As a species, we’re not new to the concept of fear, especially when it comes to high-stakes situations where our actions directly affect our outcome (or survival). Whether it’s perceived or real, stress can overwhelm us at the most inopportune times. If you search the web, there are many articles addressing how to overcome stressful situations. From popular psychology platforms like Psychology Today to the more business-oriented group at Forbes, most authors on this topic consistently promote mindfulness strategies as ways to reduce stress and anxiety. Coincidentally, many articles touch on the importance of connection and controlled breathing.

What actually happens when we get swept into our emotional brain? In the book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk shares that when we lose the balance between our rational and emotional brains we don’t feel like ourselves. As a result of our body’s stress response, we actually lean into our survival physiology, and according to authors Kathy Kain & Stephen Terrell in their book Nurturing Resilience, when our nervous system is activated in extremes, we lose compatibility with social connectedness. Granted, butterflies to most aren’t akin to evading a hungry tiger; however, losing touch with ourselves and others in stressful situations can often be just as frightening to children.

So what is considered ideal breathing? In situations where we’re wanting to overcome stress or recover from our body’s response to stress, the consensus is to slow down our breathing, even pausing at the top of the inhale and bottom of the exhale. What is also unanimous is the importance of breathing in through your nose. In James Nestor’s book, Breath, he states that “breathing slow, less, and through the nose balances the levels of respiratory gases in the body and sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues.” Additionally, Dr. Jayakar Nayak of Stanford is quoted in Nestor’s book as saying “the nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds, and weathervane to our emotions.”

When children maintain a secure and safe connection to their internal worlds as well as to the people around them, they can eventually develop trust in their own abilities to navigate stressful situations. In his book Brainstorm, Daniel Siegel shares “that state of trust between us turns on what Steve Porges calls the ‘social engagement system.’ This system calms the internal storms, relaxes a state of distress, and creates a sense of openness to new experience. This is a fundamental way in which being present not only allows us to understand another person, but also allows that connection to create clarity and calmness inside that person.”

By teaching and emphasizing self-calming techniques to children like slow, controlled breathing, we help create an opportunity for them to increase their sense of competence, or knowing they have the skills needed for success in future challenges. Although learning how to breathe effectively in stressful situations takes practice, it’s a healthy step towards building resilience and our ability to maintain connection with ourselves and others.

Kain, K. L.; Levine, P. A.; Terrell, S. J. (2018). Nurturing resilience. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Nestor, J. (2020). Breath. New York: Riverhead Books.

Siegel, D. J. (2015). Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA).

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking, of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Anderson York is a consulting engineer by profession and has developed a passion and aptitude for supporting adolescents in navigating anxiety and emotional sensitivity. Anderson attended Johns Hopkins University’s graduate school of education where he studied self-determination theory and the neurobiology of learning differences. Anderson continues to explore adolescent mental health and vulnerability in relation to breathing neurophysiology and interoceptive health. Anderson was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and currently lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine with his three boys.

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