During stressful situations, controlling your breath is a direct way to influence and regulate your autonomic nervous system.
A recent event in real life prompted me to reach out to Go-To Support Tool (my breath) to guide me from panic and overwhelm where my nervous system had literally frozen to the spot, where I was unable to move or speak, to a place of safety where I could communicate and connect.
I found myself at the foot of Le Morne Brabant Mountain, a significant natural landmark prominent in the history of the island of Mauritius, close to the luxurious resort of Beachcomber on the south coast of the island. At 555 metres above sea level, it is not the highest of mountains to climb. However, as a relatively inexperienced climber, and without entirely appropriate footwear for climbing, I knew this was not going to be easy.
My mind was questioning what I had signed up for as my nervous system sent mixed signals – from hope and excitement in my heart area to mild anxiety and nerves in my stomach. My eagerness and determination for the experience drove me forward as I began the first steps of the mount.
Cues from my autonomic nervous system
I observed my breathing as we mounted. In the beginning, when the terrain was not very steep, I breathed in and out through my nose. But after a while as the pace and incline increased, air hunger became too much to breathe through my nose and my breathing pattern changed to mouth breathing. This was not a conscious decision, I reflected. With more oxygen entering my lungs through my mouth and diffusing into my bloodstream, more oxygenated blood could pump to the organs that needed more supply for my body to exercise.
I noticed cues from my nervous system as we mounted this beautiful mountain. A sense of connection and comfort from the greetings, smiles, and exchanges of other climbers at each passing. I sensed safety to be guided up this mountain with our friendly guide, and experienced love to be sharing this experience with my husband. Excitement, gratitude, and joy were very present as we stopped from time to time to admire the scenery from each height and viewpoint.
We reached a point on the climb where our guide had warned us to expect to use a little more strength and determination as we reached the base of the first steep pass. Looking up at the steep, narrow passage from the base, my nervous system prompted many changes in my physical and emotional body as my stomach was doing somersaults and my throat was tight from nerves.
I welcomed the encouragement from my husband and guide as I gulped down nerves and doubts, motivating myself that I could do this. A few other climbers were already mounting and descending the narrow passage with relative ease. If they could do it; I could do it, I surmised.
As we began the short walk to the base of the steep passage, I noticed my breath had involuntarily quickened. I was not breathing fully into my belly like a normal, natural rhythmic flow. I was only breathing into my chest, quick and shallow. My nervous system had detected danger and involuntary changed my breathing pattern, flooding my body with adrenaline, and preparing me for fight or flight.
“It´s ok, you got this!”, I silently told my nervous system as I strode forward behind my guide, in front of my husband. I began to regulate my breathing by counting my inhalations for the count of 4 and mirroring my exhalations for the count of 4 to reduce my heart rate and regulate my breathing. A few minutes later, I was far calmer, now standing prepared for the climb.
Breathing in, I position my foot, breathing out, I climb. I continued this pattern for several minutes with relative ease, despite there being many loose rocks and small stones making the climb slippery with my inappropriate footwear!
Take my breath away
I noted a few groups up above us, and some more below us waiting on us moving up and forward so they can begin the climb. Previous climbers began to descend to the right of the narrow passage, and it soon became crowded and noisy. Another guide called out to everyone to go slowly and to be careful about loose rocks as they can be slippery and falling rocks can cause injury on others climbing or descending the narrow passage.
As I paused in my tracks to absorb what he had said, I became even more aware of how very real the risks were involved in this part of the climb. I sensed too many people on the passage at one time making it far riskier and higher possibility of an accident.
In a matter of seconds, I froze. I could neither move forward nor up the mountain. The threat my nervous system detected had literally frozen me to the spot. With my breath taken away, I wanted to call on it to help guide me out of this situation, but it was so shallow, I didn´t even notice it. I could neither move nor talk.
As my husband called my name and asked me if I was ok, as I kept my eyes fixed on one spot on the rocky terrain in front of me. With my palms sweating and fingers clawing into the terrain, I was literally holding on for dear life. Unable to turn round to look at him, my husband climbs up alongside me. I stared at him wide-eyed in frozen fear, unable to speak, unable to even shake my head. He understood immediately I was not ok.
Guiding my hand, he led me to the side of the narrow passage where I could sit and let other climbers continue. As I turned to sit, I saw before me the reality of why my nervous system had detected danger. We were way higher up, in a risky passage, with far too many people in one narrow passage. I certainly did not feel safe any longer.
Again, I called upon my breath, which had felt like it had stopped for a while. I began counting my breaths to regulate my breathing, bringing my nervous system to a more grounded state. 4 in, 4 out, 4 in, 4 out. Nice and slow, smooth, and controlled. I began extending the exhale: 4 in, 8 out, 4 in, 8 out. A few minutes later I was considerably less frozen and able to communicate with my husband and guide and enjoy the view as climbers continued to move up and past me.
Trust Your Gut
Despite encouragement from my husband and my guide for having made it this far up, they also encouraged and motivated me to continue to the top of the passage, another 15 meters or so, where it was less steep on the journey to the summit.
I understood my husband really wanted to climb to the summit and this would disappoint him not to do it with me. However, there is great wisdom in the gut and if it tells you “No!”, trust it.
Despite being several hundred meters high, I felt grounded in my nervous system enough to descend with relative ease through nice and controlled breathing and descending like a crab, with my back to the mountain.
I learned a lot during this experience. I trusted my breath and its ability to calm me and within a few short minutes, I was able to guide my nervous system from a frozen state of overwhelm and shutdown to a state of safety and connection.
That day was not my day to make it to the summit of Le Morne but I will return there one day and will make it to the summit, early in the morning when fewer climbers are on the route, with appropriate footwear and of course, the most important tool in my toolbox – My Ally, My Breath.