Balance in the Stress / Recovery System

The body’s nervous system is divided into two parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is also comprised of two parts: the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system includes all of the other nerve cells throughout the body, including those connecting to organs and muscles.

The peripheral nervous system is divided into the somatic and the autonomic systems. The somatic system is the part of the nervous system responsible for the parts of the body that we think of as being under our control, like the arms and legs. The autonomic system controls parts of the body we tend to think of as functioning without conscious thought, such as heart rate and digestion.

The autonomic system is also divided into two parts: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. A rough description of these two systems is that the sympathetic system is that which activates the body to respond to environmental stressors, while the parasympathetic system deactivates the body once the stressor has passed.

The sympathetic system is responsible for the “fight or flight (or freeze) response.” When faced with a danger, such as a car veering into our lane, our heart rate speeds up, respiration increases (or we hold our breath), blood moves away from the extremities to protect the internal organs (causing a decrease in temperature in hands and feet), and muscles become more tense, to name some of the changes in the body. After the danger passes, our body is supposed to calm back down as the parasympathetic response takes over: heart rate decreases, respiration decreases, hand temperature increases (due to the return of normal blood flow), and muscle tension decreases. This is the normal interaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The problem is our stress / recovery system is not keeping up with the times.

The stress / recovery system has been evident in humans from our earliest days on the planet. The challenge for us living in our modern society is that our stress response has not evolved as our environment has. Our stress system is the same as the one that helped cave people defend themselves against saber tooth tigers. At that time, it was an effective system.

When we faced a tiger, there was typically one of three outcomes: 1) We fight the tiger and win, 2) We run away from the tiger, or 3) we get eaten by the tiger. Notice with each of these outcomes, the encounter would have been over relatively quickly. Because the tiger is more powerful and faster than a human, if the human fights, the fight must end quickly or he is not going to win. If he runs, again, he must get away quickly or he won’t get away. If the tiger wins, this outcome, too, will be fast. So our stress system worked well in these situations: quickly activate the body for fight / flight, maintain activation for a short period of time and then de-escalate the body once the threat has passed.

In our modern society, rarely are the stressors that we experience life threatening and rarely are they short-term. Sitting in traffic, dealing with a difficult boss, butting heads with family members: these are all examples of stressors that are usually not life threatening and not over within a few minutes. The stress response we have, however, remains the same as when we fought tigers: Our stress response system is not keeping up with the times. We get a call from our cranky boss and our heart rate increases, respiration increases, and peripheral skin temperature cools. The negative interaction with the boss could continue throughout the day and our body remains activated. As a result, rather than maintaining a healthy balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic responses, the sympathetic system gets overworked and the parasympathetic system becomes weaker.

The result of this imbalance has been well documented: increased stress leads to physiological problems like heart attacks and ulcers. Increased stress decreases mental clarity. During stress, we make more mistakes and we have difficulty remembering. Increased stress leads to interpersonal problems: the energy we need to be patient with our spouse or children has been exhausted by attempting to manage stress ineffectively and we end up yelling at our family members and kicking the dog. Later we wonder, “Who was that person?”

The parasympathetic response can be trained and can become stronger. As the parasympathetic response becomes as robust as the sympathetic response, we achieve stress / recovery balance. By the way, biofeedback, because of its focus on optimal performance, is an ideal intervention for restoring stress / recovery imbalance.

Parasympathetic Breathing

One of the Daily Practices I recommend to almost all of my clients is what I call Parasympathetic Breathing. (For a description of the function of the body’s parasympathetic response, see Balance in the Stress / Recovery System ).

A normal rate of breathing for an adult is about twelve to fourteen breaths per minute. When we get anxious, we do one of two things: We either hold our breath, or we start breathing faster. We might get to twenty breaths per minute or higher in a state of distress.  As we change our breathing, within about thirty seconds, we are going to change our blood oxygen level, which then changes oxygen delivery to the brain, and keep in mind your brain runs on oxygen. Down at the lower end of the range, somewhere between five and seven breaths per minute is what gives us the greatest heart rate variability.  

Heart Rate variability (HRV) has been linked with many health and mental health benefits, including engaging the calming response. One of my clients, Karyn, was able to reduce her systolic blood pressure twenty points just by using parasympathetic breathing. Increasing HRV over time restores balance to the stress response system.

In my office, we can use sensors to detect a person’s exact ideal rate of breathing, but short of doing that, “six” is in the middle of the five to seven breaths per minute range. And six breaths per minute is easy to remember. Six breaths per minute is one breath every ten seconds.If you were to breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for five seconds, you are breathing at the rate of one breath every  ten seconds, or six breaths per minute. So it’s easy to remember: five seconds in, five Seconds out for five minutes a day. If you like it, you can do it more. You can’t do it too much. 

A warning: Sometimes your breathing mechanics may be irregular.  In this case, you won’t get the most benefit out of parasympathetic breathing, and in some cases, it can actually increase anxiety. 

To determine your mechanics, I’d like you to try an exercise. (Note: If you have respiratory or other medical conditions, please consult your physician before trying this exercise) Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest and breathe normally.  After a few breaths, notice which hand moves first. Ideally the hand on your chest is moving very little, if at all, and the hand on your belly moves first and most.  

If you have a hard time moving your breath down into your belly, here is a simple strategy that can help.  Take a book the size of a hardcover dictionary and place it on your belly as you lay flat on your back. As you breathe in you should see the book rise, when you breathe out, the book should fall again. Do your parasympathetic breathing for at least five minutes a day on your back until you can get your breathing into your belly without having to think about the mechanics.

RIP is about more than just anxiety

RIP was initially developed to help with anxiety, but it can be applied to any episodic distressing emotional state or unhelpful behavior.  It can be applied to feeling angry, lonely, embarrassed, sad/depressed, uncertain or hurt..any unpleasant emotion as long as that feeling comes and goes rather than is constant.  It can also be applied to bad habits: overeating, yelling at my kids, overuse of social media, excessive drinking or drug use, procrastination, too much screen time, and so on. 

When these emotions and behaviors occur periodically rather than constantly,  it is possible to identify the three phases of RIP: after the episode, during the episode, before the next episode. We recognize during these episodes, the front of our brain, which is responsible for higher-ordered thinking, including logic, reason and problem-solving, is “off line,” which means we are not going to expect to make rational decisions during these episodes. And what is great is the strategies of RIP do not require us to do so.  In the Recovery and Prevention phases, when higher-ordered thinking is available to us, we can use the front of our brain to not only to decrease the frequency of the episodes, but to prepare ourselves to end the episodes as quickly as possible when they do occur. 

To learn more about the RIP method, check out