The ability to alter one’s emotional responses is central to overall well-being and to effectively meeting the demands of life. One of the more popular terms that defines this ability is “resilience.”
To be resilient defines how well we can adapt and recover quickly from demanding situations. Resilience is the strategy around improving our emotional intelligence.
So, how does this relate to exercise and personal training? When I first entered the field of performance coaching, terms like
- building resilience,
- develop focused attention,
- manage sustainable energy levels and
- strengthen our emotional intelligence
were sought after areas of development in elite athletic training. Athletes and coaches understand the two obstacles that interfere with winning are overtraining (stress to the body) and cognitive training (how am I perceiving my obstacles).
As the demands of life rise for our clients, they recognize life/work have become an endurance event. It's not a sprint. However, much like the athlete, it's not their education (or skill training) that's their greatest obstacle. It's the demands of the environment and how we're mentally and emotionally processing these demands that becomes the obstacle. When they come to work out, we should be designing routines that enhance brain function, reduce stress, build resilience, increase energy levels and strengthen their cognitive and emotional abilities; not depleting them even more.
Your and my clients are seeking our expertise on how to “feel” better physically, mentally and emotionally. What I've learned over all these years is we cannot fix the mind with the mind. The mind is myriad of experiences and belief systems all based on learned behaviors that's always operating in "replay" mode. The truth lies in the body. The body cannot lie. It’s operating from a place of truth at all times. So, let’s show them how the body can be used as a tool for transformation when used properly.
- Discuss the perspective that one’s ability to self-regulate the quality of feeling and emotion is intimately tied to our physiology.
- Discuss the role of breathing patterns, heart rate variability and the vagus nerve as it relates to emotional self-regulation.
- How moderate levels of exercise can be used to strengthen vagal tone.
The Ability to Self-Regulate
Our discussion begins with the communication between the heart and brain, as well as how these are related to cognitive and emotional function as well as self-regulation. Heart rates play an important role in facilitating higher cognitive functions, creating emotional stability and facilitating states of calm. The lower our heart rate and higher our heart rate variability, the stronger our ability to self-regulate (Appelhans, & Luecken, 2006).
When heart rates are high, we are in the “fight or flight response.” We process thoughts in a hyper-vigilant state of being in the amygdala and they get stuck in "distress" thinking patterns. We "perceive" threat in this system and are designed to take action against this perceived threat. Chronic use of this system actually damages parts of the brain used to self-regulate emotions and well as think critically and rationally (Gross, 2013).
Breathing to Self-Regulate
Breathing rates and patterns with mouth breathing versus nasal breathing differ dramatically in controlling heart rates and heart rate variability. Heart Disease is the #1 chronic illness condition in our culture today even among those with regular fitness routines. Elevated heart rates in daily life and exercise are contributing, if not causing, this damage to the heart. We can see the effects of this in high performance training through adrenal fatigue syndrome and Overtraining Syndrome which are both related to an imbalance in training and recovery (Lovell, 2010).
Nasal breathing patterns have a positive effect on our physiology. When proper nasal breathing patterns are in place, we take excessive pressure off our cardiovascular system with lower heart rates and increased heart rate variability. As our respiratory system strengthens, we can control the length, depth and pace (Telles, Singh, & Balkrishna, 2011).
Slowing the pace of the nasal inhale stabilizes the rise in heart rate. Lengthening the exhale longer than the inhale allows the heart rate to drop even further. The depth of our diaphragmatic breathing allows us to reach those parasympathetic nerve endings in the lower lobes of our lungs along with serotonin receptors. When heart rates are lower in movement, not only do we have more power of our physical selves but also, our mental & emotional selves to clear destructive emotions from the mind and harness these emotions as our fuel for training.
Neurocardiology also studies the effects of our thoughts and feelings on the heart and brain. If we incorporate mindfulness-based aspects into fitness, imagine our inhale is where we set our plan of action; it’s our mental intention of what we are attempting to do. The exhale is the manifestation in action of the mental intention. The space between our inhale and exhale provides valuable tools for concentration and execution of skills. Implementation mindful nasal breathing rates and patterns then balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic response. With more parasympathetic activity, we build resilience and foster strong mental focus to execute our desire without distraction or fear.
Moderate Exercise to Strengthen Vagal Tone
Tonic levels of aerobic exercise stimulate your vagus nerve and lower stress responses associated with "fight-or-flight" mechanisms. Tonic levels of low, moderate, and vigorous physical activity also improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals.
When it comes to the dose and intensity of your daily exercise, there is one important factor… mouth breathing through high intensity cardiovascular exercise lowers HRV and reduces vagal tone. The vagus nerve is ONLY stimulated through nasal diaphragmatic breathing. Therefore, I’d like to emphasize the importance of working out at a level of exertion where you can maintain steady breathing rates and patterns (De Meersman, 1993).
Now, here’s the kicker that ties it all together. The vagus nerve regulates the parasympathetic system of the autonomic nerve system in the expression of emotion. In other words, vagal tone regulates the part of the brain responsible for our emotions (Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, & Maiti 1994).
Use breathing rates to control your heart rates. This will strengthen vagal tone and parasympathetic activity. The stronger our parasympathetic, the easier we bounce back. Think of our parasympathetic system as our “braking” system.
When’s the last time you checked your brakes?
Appelhans, B., and Luecken, L. (2006). Heart rate variability as an index of regulated emotional responding. Rev. Gen. Psychol.10, 229–240. doi: 10.1037/1089-26184.108.40.206 http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.11
Gross, D. (March 19, 2013). Effects of Stress on the Hippocampus. Retrieved from http://drgailgross.com/academia/effects-of-stress-on-the-hippocampus/
Lovell, M. (2010). Adrenal fatigue & overtraining in the athlete. The Nutrition Practitioner, 11(1). Retrieved from http://cnelm.co.uk/
Telles, S., Singh, N., & Balkrishna, A. (2011). Heart rate variability changes during high frequency yoga breathing and breath awareness. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 5(4). doi:10.1186/1751-0759-5-4
De Meersman, R. E. (March 1993). Heart rate variability and aerobic fitness, American Heart Journal, March 1993Volume 125, Issue 3, Pages 726–731
Porges, S.W., Doussard-Roosevelt J.A., and Maiti A.K. (1994). Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7984159