I really struggled with this when I lived up in the city. Everything in NYC is always such high stakes, and whenever I would finally get home from running around all day like a chicken with my head cut off, I physiologically NEEDED SOMETHING to turn me off. Do you ever feel that way? Have you ever arrived home so amped up from the day that it it takes you a second to calm down? That's your sympathetic nervous system! It is the one responsible for fight or flight mode, and can be very beneficial when fleeing from a lion. To combat this proverbial lion in fitness and in life, we breathe in through our nose and out of our nose or mouth. The IN THROUGH THE NOSE is what is especially important. It helps to calm your sympathetic response, and starts to flip the switch back to parasympathetic. This is why if you breathe in and out of your mouth quickly enough, you hyperventilate. You are basically maxing out your sympathetic nervous system.
Do this with me. Sit up straight. Close your eyes. But wait, not yet. Read this sentence first: with your eyes closed, breathe in through your nose slowly, for 5 seconds. Exhale out of your mouth or nose for 7 seconds, as if you were breathing through a straw. Focus on making that exhale a small but powerful stream of air. Hold the exhale for 3 seconds. Do this 3 times through, and then join me again. I’ll wait.
Do you feel more relaxed? That’s your parasympathetic nervous system kicking in. Which is why breathing properly in fitness is so important, but also breathing properly in LIFE is so important! All of those 23 other hours of the day that is not spent with a coach!
So whenever I came home chased by a lion, what "solution" did I always resort to? Was it dropping down to an all fours position and breathing deeply into my back? NOPE. It was WINE. Is anyone nodding like, this is totally me? Or maybe for you, this "unwinding ritual" is a cigarette. Or perhaps it's FOOD. Some comfort food that you believe makes you feel relaxed.
I will say that again: some comfort food that you believe makes you feel relaxed.
What is it about this thing that makes you feel relaxed? Ask yourself, is it actually within the ingredients of this thing to sedate me? If it's wine, then okay yes, to some extent, it's a depressant! But even still, aren't all of these examples just examples of a ritual? Isn't this just a story we've created in our head, "I am so stressed. I need [blank]. I'm so tired, I deserve [blank]”?
In that moment, what you actually need and deserve is a "flip switch" button to your nervous system. You need to be able to transition from sympathetic to parasympathetic. From on to off. From amped to om. And guess what guys? A pint of ice cream or a bottle of wine isn't going to give you the physiological response you need in order to wind down at the end of a stressful day. We have created a story in our heads that said item makes us feel [blank]. But there is nothing inherently in ice cream that produces a calming effect on the body, other than the association we have made to said ice cream.
So. What do we do about this?
Good news is, if you have trained your body into this association, guess what? You can train it out of your body, too!
Pick one of these approaches that you feel most connected to:
1. Think of an activity that really relaxes you. Truly brings you peace and calm. Is there a particular podcast on meditation you love? Is it reading? Walking around the neighborhood for a lap or two at sunset? Is it calling a good friend? Making a cup of tea? Adult coloring books? Whatever it is, tonight when you come home, after you put down your stuff and wash your hands and pee, go do that thing just for FIVE MINUTES. Literally just commit to it for FIVE MINUTES. But before you do, start with that breathing exercise at the top of this article. And continue to focus on your breath during this activity. Does it truly calm you? Does it promote great breathing? If so, this can be a great tool for you to wind down.
2. Sit down and journal for 5 minutes. Journaling seems daunting to us because we imagine our diaries when we were 10, and wanting to write down all of the details of the day. “Well, diary, I woke up late today so I had to sacrifice a shower for coffee. I ran to the express train only to find that it was OF COURSE going local AGAIN and as I was running toward the closing doors I spilt coffee all down my shirt. I laughed with a coworker at around 10am over a funny you tube video which felt good. Then…” NO. Unless this brings you joy, you do not have to recount every minute of every day when journaling. I just want you to focus on writing down key words or even doodling that come to mind when I say the following:
Lastly, pick one of these items that truly resonated with you, close your eyes, and focus on the words or the images that came to mind. Using the breathing that we started at the top of this article, focusing on how that word makes you feel. Embody that word with every inhale and exhale.
3) If you’re a little more pragmatic or task oriented, try this. Make a cup of hot tea, and sit down with your planner. Write three things you’re grateful for, today specifically. Then, write down a list of things to do tomorrow. Not tonight, tomorrow. Of this list, circle the three most important things you need to do tomorrow. The three things that absolutely MUST get done. Then rank these things in order of importance. What must happen without a shadow of a doubt tomorrow? That is your number one priority. Then choose 2 and 3. Two and three should be of very heavy importance, but not quite as dire as number one. Then write how you feel at the end of tomorrow when these three things have been checked off the list. Close the journal. Start the deep breathing as listed above.
How long should you breathe? As long as you want! After all, some breathing is better than no breathing. (literally, I mean, the latter equals “bye, world.”) Perhaps you like the idea of setting an alarm to breathe. Maybe start with just 1 minute of breathing. Each time you practice this, try to add one minute to your practice. I recommend finding a peaceful space you love. You could even designate a certain corner of a room to this breathing, making it your breathing shrine or fortress!
Test this out for a week. See if this helps in winding down after a long day, and helps squash that impetus to relax into a bottle of wine. Breathe in through the nose, and out through the nose. Hopefully even just reading this article brings you more relaxation to carry with you throughout the rest of your day.
And it just feels right to end this article with this: