• February 1, 2014

Breathe, Lisa. This is what my martial arts instructor frequently tells me. Yes, as a species we have now evolved to the point where we pay someone to remind us to breathe. And honestly, most of us need the reminder, especially in a potential conflict situation.

Picture this: Your neighbor is walking towards you and giving you that look. (You know, the look. If this was a scene in a comic strip and you had to write the blurb about what he is thinking, it would probably be something like “You <bleep>, I’m gonna rip your head off!”) What’s your first reaction? Are you tempted to shoot from the hip with a remark that’s not exactly diplomatic? Probably. Are you getting ready to defend yourself? Probably. Are you breathing? Probably not.

So, what’s going on here? You see the look. You immediately tell yourself a story about what that look means. The story usually boils down to one word: Danger! Cue fear, anger, annoyance, and all sorts of other unpleasant emotions. Your brain promptly diverts blood to your extremities to get ready to fight or run – after all, bad things are happening! Your freshly oxygen-deprived brain is now planning a preemptive verbal strike. Something you’ll most likely regret is about to come out of your mouth, in a tone of voice that matches the look. You’re holding your breath.

Why is this train about to derail? It’s not because your neighbor gave you the look. The problem lies with the story you told yourself about what that look means – attack in progress! When you stop to think, you immediately realize that the look may not have been an attack at all. Actually, it may have had nothing whatsoever to do with you. There are perfectly rational explanations for the look that don’t even remotely involve you. Worst migraine ever. New car totaled. Got fired. Uncle Oscar coming to stay with him for three months. As you are thinking about other explanations for the look, your neighbor is morphing from a raving lunatic into a poor guy.

How come we don’t automatically consider these more benevolent stories to begin with? Because we’re not really thinking. In a potentially threatening situation, our brain is genetically designed to quickly answer that all-important question: Friend or foe? Based on this snap decision, chemical reactions are triggered at lightning speed, and within a matter of seconds our mental capacity is reduced to that of a prehistoric animal. In that state, we don’t have access to rational explanations. We’re busy trying to decide whether to make a fist or make a beeline in the other direction.

It is not an easy feat to maintain more humanoid thinking while our animal brain is screaming ‘Do something NOW!’ and getting ready to drown us in adrenaline. I’m wondering whether it is possible that we condition ourselves to breathe first and keep that fight-or-flight reaction under control. I’m doing a self-experiment: Before saying or doing anything important, I make it a point to go through a complete inhale and exhale. Every day, and every time – breathe and think first, then act. It takes a lot of repetition to form a new habit. And if we want to behave better in potential conflict situations as our brain power is plummeting, that takes even more repetition. So, I’m curious how this will go.

Let’s get back to our comic strip scene. Say your first instinct is to lay into your neighbor, but you manage to take a deep breath and stave off a full-blown adrenaline flood. You’re still thinking almost straight, at least for the moment. What do you gain by not immediately acting on the initial doomsday story?

You stay in a sufficiently productive frame of mind to handle any potential scenario, not just the ‘Extreme Danger’ one imagined by your primitive animal brain:

If it turns out that the look was not about you in the first place, you’ll be calm enough to help your neighbor should he need assistance. (You have met his Uncle Oscar before.) If you were the intended target of the look and your neighbor is geared up for a shouting match, your brain will be functioning well enough to conduct a challenging conversation. Even if your neighbor came looking for a fistfight, by the time he’s throwing the first punch, you will have somewhat intelligently assessed the situation and weighed your options on what to do next.

It’s in your best interest to stay calm as long as you can, and nothing is lost with this approach. Your adrenaline will surge in a flash if you really are attacked. They don’t call it a “rush” for nothing. Once you’re all worked up, however, it can take quite some time for your body to metabolize all those hormones to a point where you can have a meaningful dialogue. Need to get ready to fight in a hurry? No problem. Need to calm down in a hurry so you can talk? Good luck. So, in any potential conflict situation, whether verbal or physical, we are all well-advised to breathe and think first. Then act.

There’s a reason why martial artists time their movements with their breathing. It creates flow. It increases awareness, focus, accuracy and power. It improves results. I certainly could use more of all that, especially in conflict situations. So, until I kick the habit of holding my breath when things get intense, I will gladly pay someone to remind me: Breathe, Lisa.

Are you breathing yet?


  1. Tiffany Howard

    This is so thoughtful and insightful. We should all be more aware of our reactions. And certainly more benevolent. Less jumping to conclusions. Loved this…

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