January looks different this year than usual. A month known for its from-the-rooftops proclamations about transformation from people who want to start over, do better, or be bolder, is straddling the line between embracing change in 2021 and tending to the fallout from 2020. While the new year does offer an opportunity to make room for hope, we know healing— mentally, physically, and emotionally— is a process. And the anxiety and isolation caused by COVID-19 has real consequences that many are dealing with every single day.
This week, as part of our ongoing series about The Road Ahead in 2021, we’re talking about the impact the pandemic has had on our brains and breath. We’ll hear from brain health coach Ryan Glatt, and clinical psychologist and breath specialist Dr. Belisa Vranich.
First up is Glatt, who shares how the fear of COVID and social isolation can impact brain function, what we can do about it, and why we shouldn’t panic if we feel like we’re not thinking as clearly these days.
Ryan Glatt is a brain health coach and creator of the Brain Health Trainer curriculum. Glatt combines his neuroscience training with a decade of experience in exercise science to create comprehensive health programs to optimize brain health. He consults for brain-based technology companies like SMARTFit, and practices brain-based strategies for cognitive enhancement at the Pacific Brain Health Center in Los Angeles, California. Like many of us, Ryan has experienced the mental and physical challenges of pandemic life, and shares the strategies he uses to stay mentally sharp during a time of isolation and uncertainty.
Suzanne Krowiak: You know a lot about how our brains respond to what’s happening around us, and this past year has been really tough on people. How has it been for you?
Ryan Glatt: I’ve been doing okay. I’ve been able to work, thankfully. Certainly there’s been a mental and cognitive deficit over the last eleven months. It’s similar to what you might experience with an eleven-month-old child at home— you’re losing sleep, you can’t always think of yourself. Lots of changes occur. Personally, I’ve noticed that my cognition, my attention, and my mental health have been affected, and I think everyone can relate to that. Any time there’s a change to our environment, our brain will adapt to it. It doesn’t mean it will adapt well or efficiently, but that’s why we have our higher level thinking. Our higher order cognitive abilities can help us be reflective in this environment.
SK: Does the brain respond in a predictable way to the kind of upheaval we’ve been experiencing individually and collectively this year?
RG: What’s happening in our brain is a threat response, so there’s this reflexive reactivity happening. I think people are really discouraged. “Oh, I’ve gained weight, my mental health has suffered, my cognitive health has suffered.” And it’s challenging to see that there is a way out. But if you slow down and use your higher order executive functions, that can help. Sometimes we need to outsource that thinking, and that’s what coaches and friends and therapists are for. They can help us think through these very reactive, very stressful scenarios, and help us plan and organize our way out.
SK: When people are in the clutches of uncertainty and anxiety, being asked to use their higher order thinking can feel like trying to put a puzzle together in the dark. Can you talk a little more about the push and pull between emotional, anxiety-fueled thinking and higher order, logical thinking?
RG: Sure. To give a little bit of neuroanatomy, there’s the amygdala, which you’ve probably heard of, which is responsible for fear, and perceives threats. This is the emotional center of our brains, and it’s very normal for it to become more active in times of chronic stress, anxiety, or depression. It might even get bigger. So it literally becomes this looming beast in the background that gets stronger and stronger the more we feed it. But the prefrontal cortex, which is at the front of your head if you put your hand on your forehead, is what makes human beings unique. Animals will reflexively react to their environment. But humans are able to build and think and plan. That frontal lobe, that prefrontal cortex, is what allows us to do that. But when the amygdala is more active because we’re depressed or anxious, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t work as well. So you’re right, it’s like telling people to walk when their legs aren’t working as well as usual. We have to choose to engage those executive functions in our brain.
SK: What if people are too overwhelmed or anxious to be able to do that?
RG: That’s why it’s really important to have a support network. We didn’t really appreciate how important social support is for our cognitive and mental health until we lost a lot of it. But now we’re seeing how negatively that’s affected us. The good news is that we can help solve the problem by reconnecting with others to share our issues and work through them together. Humans are social, cognitive creatures and we use each other to work through things. So if you have a trainer, a coach, a therapist, or a loved one you can reach out to, you can work through these issues by sharing them. That’s what can get you out of a funk because when you engage with others, you’re outsourcing and collaboratively utilizing those executive functions in the prefrontal cortex. The executive function is the CEO of the brain and, unfortunately, COVID came with a bat and knocked out the CEO. So we have to slowly wake him up again, and we can do that with each other’s help.
SK: So is that what you’re talking about when you say the brain adapts to the environment, and not necessarily in a good way? Almost shrinking the part of the brain that has the executive function capabilities?
RG: Yes. We might call it a COVID concussion, and it may not be a physical manifestation. I’m speaking very generally, neuroscientifically. But for simplification purposes, we can say yes, the frontal lobe and the amygdala— the emotional and logical centers of our brain— have been affected by this. Some people have called Zoom fatigue a digital concussion. There’s not a physical striking of the head, but our brain activity has been modulated suboptimally by our environment, not too dissimilar from how a concussion might work. The problem is people get frustrated with themselves because they think they should just naturally be working optimally like they did before. And your own subjective comparison of your cognitive state and mental health now versus what they were before the pandemic creates frustration. That puts you deeper into the problem, further activating the amygdala and your feelings of fear and threat.
SK: What can we do about that?
RG: We have to rehabilitate. How do we rehabilitate? We make a plan. And the way we make a plan is by integrating aspects that we know can rehabilitate this COVID concussion. What are those things? It’s all the stuff that you’d probably roll your eyes at if I started listing them; sleep, mindfulness, social support, positive affect, engaging in novel activities, AND so on and so forth. But if you can view it as a rehab plan— a COVID concussion rehab plan— then you can be more purposeful about it, instead of just sighing and saying “yeah, I know I should eat my vegetables.”
SK: I love this framing of it as an injury that needs rehabilitation. It’s helpful for people like me who aren’t neuroscientists.
RG: If you have something that feels incredibly complex and you feel lost, you can reframe it and make a goal. That becomes a matrix where you can create something. You’re using executive functions to regain more executive function, if that makes sense. The fact that we’re able to reframe it is evidence that we’re using our prefrontal cortex, where our executive functions are. Awareness of awareness, if you will. It’s called metacognition, and we’re able to use that as humans.
SK: What are some examples of what a “COVID concussion” might look like in someone’s day-to-day life?
RG: There could be cognitive symptoms like problems with short-term memory and focus. You might be more reactive and have trouble inhibiting thoughts, words, or phrases you might not want to say to people. Your ability to engage in complex tasks or respond to unexpected environments could be reduced. Maybe your verbal fluency isn’t as good as it was before COVID. Talking to people is harder because we’re talking to each other so much less. When these mental muscles aren’t used, they tend to change. They might be muffled or get weaker. And this can be distressing for people because they think the changes are permanent, but they’re not. They can be rehabilitated in many ways. And another way the COVID concussion may show up is in your mental health. It’s legitimately how you feel— your subjective cognition and mood states. In other words, how do you feel mentally and cognitively? That’s your subjective baseline, day to day. We’re aware of it, but we can catastrophize it if we notice we’re having a hard time or think our memory is going. We don’t consider that it could be a temporary state based on our environment. How do we modify our environment to improve our state?
SK: Is there a brain hack we can employ if we notice we’re entering a fear spiral about a cognitive decline? Something to remind us that it’s temporary and we have power to improve it?
RG: I think it’s very individualized. One thing that might work for one person won’t work for another. I think it’s really important to utilize awareness. Can you, even for just a second, step outside the spiral to see it and say “Ah, yes. A spiral.” And then think about what the exit might be. The exit may not show up for a few minutes, hours, or days. Think of the movie Twister. You’re inside the twister now. You got caught. How do you exit the twister? There are different points of exit and different strengths of that exit. We have to think outside of ourselves and imagine where the exit might be, and that’s going to be different for everybody. It might be going for a walk for some people, or reaching out to a mental health professional for others. Maybe it’s calling a friend. Or it might just be taking a day off of work and Zoom. All of those things are ways to exit the twister.
SK: Right now we’re in a challenging time because the pandemic is still very bad, with infection and death rates on a scale that’s devastating. At the same time, several vaccines have been approved and we’re seeing people all over the world get their shots. What happens to our brains when we’re living in this space between grief and hope?
RG: The brain is a predictive organ and it wants to predict scenarios. It wants to predict what’s good, and what’s bad. It’s challenging because if we don’t know when we’re going to get the vaccine or when the world will be at peace or this or that, the waiting itself creates increased stress and a threat response. The threat becomes uncertainty itself. So, it won’t help to say, “oh, the vaccine is coming, everything is fine.” The best thing is believing you can be flexible in the environment you’re in, knowing you can’t control the uncertainty.
SK: So staying in the present, with the tools that are available to you now. Is that what you mean?
RG: Yes, exactly. Try to respond to what’s in front of you. And what’s in front of you may require different responses. So it’s not just staying mindful the whole time. For example, if the COVID situation is changing, or you have a financial situation or health situation, all of those require different responses. Mindfulness could help you better select your response and be more cognitively flexible. Cognitive flexibility, which is your ability to react or respond to unexpected circumstances, is a skill that’s part of executive function. So we might need to rehabilitate our executive functions so we can better respond to things we don’t expect.
SK: It sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s possible that some people could get even more stressed out with news of the vaccine because they have no idea when they’ll be able to get it.
RG: It’s possible. If we’re expecting a specific outcome that we can’t control, we’re extending the threat response. We’re basically guaranteeing ourselves a longer duration of threat. This is not a new phenomena, it’s just enhanced, and it’s further elicited by narratives of those around us. It’s very challenging to parse out and there’s no easy way to fix it. The only way to address it is to remain cognitively flexible. “Okay, this is what’s in front of me. How do I best respond?”
SK: How can we improve our cognitive flexibility?
RG: It’s a great question. Certainly stress makes cognitive flexibility a lot harder. So you could think about all the stress management techniques that are in your toolbox. Sometimes you just have to reach inside your toolbox, sometimes you need to build your toolbox. I would say it’s about building something called cognitive reserve, and cognitive reserve is like your gas tank. Every time you utilize these executive functions, you’re dipping into your gas tank. So the question is, how do you fill the tank? It probably includes a variety of lifestyle behaviors. It could be stress management, more sleep, better nutrition, exercise, talk therapy. Maybe it’s deciding to take a break from the news or doom scrolling or Zoom calls. There are all sorts of ways to fill the tank, and we might have to go through that process every day, or even multiple times per day, depending on the situation. But most people are either running half empty or totally empty, and that’s why these higher order executive functions go out the window.
SK: It’s interesting to think about it as a rehabilitation program because, like you said, so many people roll their eyes at phrases like “fill your gas tank.” But I think to dismiss it is to diminish the magnitude of our pain and disruption in the last year. Many have experienced the cognitive decline and mental health issues that you’ve described, and seeing it as something that’s real and in need of rehabilitation gives permission to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
RG: Yes, it’s a reframe. It’s a tactic used in cognitive behavioral therapy called reappraisal, where we interrupt the recurring narrative. Some people catastrophize, some people fortune tell, some people blame themselves or others. But this allows us to interrupt that thought process. “I am reappraising the situation at hand.”
SK: Is there a simple daily practice you recommend for people experiencing what we’ve been talking about so far?
RG: I don’t think it comes as any surprise that I recommend breath work and mindfulness. And honestly, one of the best ways to improve executive functions is to exercise. I don’t want to get too specific about what kind or how much, because then people will focus on the ideal, and if we’re not reaching the ideal we’re going to think it’s not good enough so we won’t do it. But it could be a walk, a game of tennis, ping pong, dance, aerobic exercise, weightlifting. It doesn’t matter what it is. These brain networks involved in focus and stress need some relief; they need a lunch break. And the best way to do that is with exercise. It can improve brain network plasticity, cognitive functioning, and blood flow. It also regulates neurotransmitter levels, and can express hormones and proteins and growth factors that are neuroprotective and good for us. We have a variety of things at various levels of the brain to help us through this. Engaging in mind-body modalities like yoga and therapy ball rolling are great ways to reduce stress and temporarily restore some previously limited attentional resources to our brains through the regulation of our nervous systems and the modulation of these brain networks.
SK: What do you think about the effectiveness of crossword puzzles or word games like Sudoku?
RG: There are a lot of ways to stay cognitively stimulated. If we’re trying to improve cognition directly, brain games and cognitive stimulation might have a benefit, but research shows they may or may not transfer to our environment. But exercise does. That doesn’t mean we want to villainize word games. If doing a crossword puzzle is a break from Zoom and brings you joy, do it. But don’t expect dramatic returns in terms of improving your cognitive health. If you want to download a brain game and play that, you certainly can. It can be part of your rehabilitation plan. A more effective approach would be to make your exercise more mentally demanding. If you’re taking an exercise break and repping out bicep curls while looking at the TV, you’re not actually giving your brain a break. You’re just distracting yourself. But if you can engage in an exercise modality that engages your cognitive functions, the exercise becomes integration instead of a distraction. Things like dance, martial arts, and sports are more cognitively demanding while you move. Even just following an instructor on a screen and feeling like you’re digitally part of an exercise group is helpful.
For more advice from Glatt on how exercise affects brain function, watch him in the docu-series Broken Brain 2 by Dr. Mark Hyman, and listen to this in-depth conversation with Dhru Purohit on the Broken Brain podcast.
Next up is Dr. Belisa Vranich. Vranich is a clinical psychologist and author who’s devoted her career to helping people breathe better. She’s written several books, including Breathing for Warriors and Breathe: The Revolutionary 14-Day program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health, and spent 2020 helping people manage the one-two punch of high anxiety in the face of a contagious and potentially lethal respiratory virus. She shares her insights on why we were so vulnerable to an illness like COVID-19, and the importance of identifying and improving our own breath mechanics to be ready for what comes next.
Suzanne Krowiak: Your background is unique, because you’re a clinical psychologist who specializes in breath mechanics. Can you talk about the connection between the two?
Belisa Vranich: Breathing is both conscious and unconscious, so it has a very clear psychological part of it, which I hadn’t seen integrated in the same way before I started doing this work. So even though my work is focused on breathing, I can’t stop being a psychologist because it’s so deeply ingrained in who I am. I think we have to consider psychology and our thoughts when we talk about breath, because our experiences and beliefs can change the way we breathe.
SK: What are you seeing in your clients and the population during COVID that surprises you the most?
BV: I think everyone is experiencing more anxiety than we actually thought we would. We understood COVID as a respiratory virus, but we didn’t realize what it was going to do to our anxiety. There has been a tremendous mental health component to it that we never considered when it first started. I’m seeing a lot of panic attacks; so many panic attacks. So I’m doing a lot of work to address that.
SK: What’s the starting point when you’re trying to help someone with that?
BV: If someone is getting overwhelmed and having panic attacks, we start with compartmentalizing and asking four distinct questions.
First, What’s “normal” to feel right now? Normalizing in that scenario is understanding that everybody’s feeling this way and you’re not the only one.
Second, What’s a real threat? Maybe it’s someone in your circle that’s not being cautious about COVID exposure.
Third, What can you actually do about it? You have to take measures to be safe from that person who’s not taking COVID seriously.
And, fourth, How can you calm your nervous system in the moment? And that’s the trickiest part, because people think they should be able to meditate or something like that right away. But if you’re anxious and having a panic attack, sitting down and trying to calm yourself is impossible. It’s like giving a hyperactive child a lot of sugar and asking them to sit still.
SK: Yes, and then people feel like even bigger failures because they can’t just “calm down.”
BV: Yes. We think we should be able to do it. But we have to be more humble. Think about the animal kingdom. Animals don’t go from running away from a predator to calming down immediately. What do they do in between? They shake. If they’re horses, they shake their whole bodies and tails, flutter their lips, and then they sit down. But they have to do something to disperse that energy first. Humans don’t think we have to, but we do. So I tell people to go for a run, get on the Stairmaster. Do something to tire yourself out, and then you’ll be able to calm down.
And the next thing I recommend to help with calming down is compression at the base of the skull with therapy balls. I tell people to lay down on their backs and put two Roll Model balls in a tote on the back of their head, right at the two little notches (occipitals) at the base of their skull . If you do a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing with the balls in that position, it will help a lot with calming the nervous system.
SK: Beyond the psychological impact, what concerns you most about COVID when it comes to respiratory health? People’s experiences are so variable; it’s lethal for some, and like a cold for others.
BV: If you think about it, we were in a respiratory crisis before COVID. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the fourth leading cause of death. We have forest fires that are so big they’re affecting the lungs of people who live one or two states away, depending on the size of the state. We have environmental toxins. Even things like the increase in multiple births— multiple births are often premature, and prematures infants can have lung problems extending into adulthood. So we are in a respiratory health crisis, and we really need a big campaign about prevention, intervention, and healing, just like we have campaigns about cardiac health. We’ve had decades of conversations about cardio and dieting, all in an attempt to help with heart health. But strong lungs are as important as strong hearts.
SK: I think if you ask people what they can do to improve cardiac health, they would rattle off a list of things pretty quickly— exercise, whole foods, etc. But if you were to ask the same people how to take care of their respiratory health, the answers probably wouldn’t come so easily. Do you think people know how to take care of their lungs?
BV: Most will say “I do cardio.” And I’ll say, “But cardio is for your cardiovascular system, which is your heart. What do you do for your lungs?” They might say “I’m breathing when I’m doing cardio. Doesn’t that work out my lungs?” And the answer is no. It sustains them, but it doesn’t make them stronger. Given that we’re in this respiratory health crisis, we need to make sure that our lungs themselves are good, that the machinery that inflates and deflates the lungs—meaning the muscles surrounding them— are good. That’s how we make sure we can breathe in a functional, productive way.
Because one thing is clear— if we’re breathing in a dysfunctional way, we’re more at risk for problems like COVID. The pandemic hit us harder because our breathing is so dysfunctional. I know that’s a really serious thing to say, but our breathing mechanics are horrible. We’re breathing with our auxiliary breathing muscles, taking small breaths with the upper part of our body and not using our diaphragm. If we’re not ventilating our lungs efficiently and we get a virus, it’s going to be worse. Do I think our poor mechanics made COVID worse? Absolutely. One thing you can do to combat that is teaching people how to cough properly. It’s a really important skill, and a key to fighting respiratory illnesses.
SK: Tell me more about that. Why is coughing so important?
BV: If someone has pneumonia, respiratory physiologists will tell them to cough so they can get the phlegm out of their body and oxygen in. And the fact is that a good chunk of the population won’t die of old age; they’ll have complications that turn into pneumonia and die from that. Most people with AIDS don’t die of AIDS, they die of pneumonia. Many people who die after COVID will die of pneumonia. Moisture is bad for your lungs, so you need to get as much of the moisture out as you can, in order to get air in. If your mechanics are bad and you’re not a good cougher, you won’t be able to get as much stuff out as you should. So I ask people to give me a big belly breath, then exhale hard from their middle— almost like they’re giving themselves the Heimlich maneuver— and cough. You need to use these exhale muscles when you cough. The harder and more efficiently you cough, the more phlegm you get out of your lungs. And the more phlegm you can get out of your lungs, the more you reduce your chances of getting pneumonia, period.
SK: You’ve devoted your career to teaching people how to breathe, and you’ve even written two books about it. Why do you think there’s such a fundamental misunderstanding of breath mechanics?
BV: Because people have been told it’s as simple as “just breathe.” They think proper breathing comes naturally and can’t be disrupted, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Breathing is a movement. It’s a movement like a squat or a deadlift, and you can do it badly. Since we’re highly adaptive organisms, we can do something badly, get an injury, and just make it work by compensating and limping around it. Humans are good at limping around things forever. So we need better screening tools, and then better correctives.
SK: One of the things you’ve spoken about is the confusion over the lungs and diaphragm. Can you talk about the interdependence of these two parts of our anatomy, and why it’s so important to understand the role each plays in our respiratory health?
BV: The lungs and diaphragm are so interdependent. Your lungs do nothing. They’re an organ, not a muscle, and they can’t do anything on their own. So you could have fantastic big lungs, but they can’t do anything if the muscles around them aren’t functioning, and the most important one is the one below them— the diaphragm. It’s your primary muscle of respiration and balance. I describe it as a skirt steak the size of a frisbee, right in the middle of your body. And I say skirt steak because that’s the actual diaphragm of the cow. On the inhale, the diaphragm pushes the ribs open, and on the exhale, your intercostal and core muscles pull the ribs closed. But the diaphragm can be stuck. It’s a muscle that can be tight, in the same way your hamstrings can be tight. In general the diaphragm is pretty locked up because as a species, we brace our middles. It doesn’t matter what weight we are— if we’re obese or thin. We’re so stressed out, and the human response to stress is to brace our middles. Now, add vanity to that. Then add the misinformation that makes people believe they’re making their abs stronger by tightening them all the time. So you end up with a diaphragm that doesn’t move. When it tries to flatten out and expand your ribs for a full, healthy breath, it can’t.
SK: One of the most interesting things I’ve heard you talk about is how our breath changes when we’re staring at our screens. This is especially relevant during COVID because so many of us are spending so much more time sitting at our desk at home, staring at the computer for Zoom calls or other work-related tasks that have transitioned to virtual assignments. What should people understand about how that’s affecting our respiratory health?
BV: Well, sitting a long time is bad for us, but sitting and looking at a screen is exponentially bad. We could spend our whole day with our field of vision being a foot away on our computers, or three inches away on our handhelds. And if you look at the history of man, that’s just mind-blowing. When our field of vision is small, our breath is going to be small. It’s like a hunter’s breath. I’m sure you’ve seen nature shows where there’s a big cat stalking its prey. The cat is completely still. It’s taking very small breaths and doesn’t even blink. That’s exactly what we’re doing when we’re at the computer. That’s why it’s so important to step away and look at the horizon. The first thing that usually happens when you look out onto the horizon is you sigh. It’s a resting breath. But if you’re always in the hunter’s breath and stalking your prey—or your computer, in this instance— you’re not breathing well because you’re not using your full range of breathing muscles. I do the same thing. I think I’m taking a break to look at Instagram, but I haven’t changed my breath because I’m still in the same position looking at my device. It’s so important to get up at least once every hour to walk around and look at a wide field of vision so you can take a resting breath.
SK: What does it look like to take a deep breath that’s healthy and functional?
BV: Often when we ask people to take a deep breath, we see a caricature of a deep breath. If you’re puffing up your chest and lifting your shoulders, that’s not a deep breath. And that’s definitely not a diaphragmatic breath. But we’ve been told to do it that way. A lot of cues in yoga and pilates tell us to think of a string pulling our head up, but that automatically puts us in what I call a vertical breath. It’s a narrow waist and puffed up chest, and that’s completely anatomically incongruous. So I start with asking people to let the middle of their bodies expand when they take an inhale. And you wouldn’t believe how many people can’t do it. The belly breath is the intro breath. You start with that, and then what you want is the bottom of your ribs to move, all the way around your body so that your neck and shoulders don’t have to move when you breathe unless you absolutely need them. You want both things— the belly and the ribs— expanding because that’s what gives you abdominal, thoracic, and respiratory flexibility. It can help with your immune system, inflammation, high blood pressure, and lots of other things. This flexibility is a major factor in keeping you healthy and balanced.
SK: Figuring out whether or not you’re using the right muscles to breath can be hard for most people, so you created a free diagnostic tool that can be done at home called the Breathing I.Q. Can you tell us how it works?
BV: It’s a functional screening of your breathing biomechanics, and all you need is a measuring tape. The Breathing I.Q. looks at the location of your breath. Are you breathing with your shoulders? Or is it in your upper chest? Are you doing an abdominal thoracic breath, which is what we want, using the belly and the ribs? Even though we can’t feel our lungs or diaphragm inside our body, we can determine a grade for our breathing based on how our body moves during the test. So it gives us a baseline to work from, and an understanding of what we need to work on for better respiratory function.
SK: What happens after someone takes the test?
BV: Just doing the test will tell you the location of your breathing, and that knowledge is part of the solution. So, right away you may learn that you’re only breathing from your shoulders, and you can start focusing on taking a breath closer to your belly button. Or maybe you’ll see that you’re breathing from the right place in your body, but you don’t have much range of motion in your rib cage, and it doesn’t move as much as it should. So you could do some side-bending stretches to target your intercostal muscles. I’m doing a study right now that shows you can jump a grade or two on the Breathing I.Q. within ninety minutes of taking the test. And once you get the mechanics right, you can add weights to strengthen your breathing muscles. I like to use the gym analogy. First you get the form right, then you add weights.
SK: If we get the breath mechanics right, what are some of the things we can prevent down the line?
BV: Well, first of all, it can have a big impact on anxiety disorders. It won’t prevent the things that give you anxiety, but if you’re breathing in a way that’s a stress breath, your body’s going to listen to your breath before it listens to your words. Positive self-talk alone does not work. If your breath is saying “be vigilant,” then your heart rate will go up, your cortisol will go up. Our body is wired to listen to the breath before the brain. So getting the breath mechanics right will give you more options for how aroused you need your body to be. Do you need to be vigilant because there’s an emergency you need to manage? Do you want to be zen’d out in a meditative state? Your breathing is what lets you go to those different places. And dysfunctional breathing is one of the main causes of our inability to rest and digest properly. The diaphragm is very important to the digestive process, and a locked up diaphragm can contribute to acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation. It’s a big deal. These are all connected to respiratory health.
SK: As difficult as this year has been, is there anything you hope we can keep from it as a culture? Things we shouldn’t forget as we find our way to a new normal?
BV: I think if we’ve come out with anything, it’s the idea of impermanence. We can plan, but that doesn’t mean it will go our way, so we can’t be attached to the outcome. One way to survive a year like this is to distance ourselves from expectations and outcomes. What’s the saying? We plan and God laughs? I’ve been reading one page of The Pocket Pema Chödron every day and find it to be really helpful. It’s about understanding that everything is in a state of change all the time, and our mental flexibility is the most important resource we have to get through this.
Advice from Dr. Belisa: Three things you can do today to improve your physical and mental health:
- Take the Breathing I.Q. test. This free, at-home assessment will help you identify if you have dysfunctional breathing, and what you can do to make immediate improvements.
- Commit to a daily journaling practice. Set a timer for 15 minutes and just write. Don’t reread it right away because you might be too critical. As you write, you may begin to notice themes about the experiences, events, or people that bring you joy, stir sadness, or elicit other emotions that can help you identify the things you need or value most in your life.
- Get a copy of The Pocket Pema Chödrön and read one page every day. It’s about understanding that everything is in a state of change all the time and our mental flexibility is the most important resource to get through times like this.
Coming up next in part three of our series, we’ll look at practical things you can do to recover your physical, mental, and nutritional health after a year when the disruption to our routines meant basic self-care went out the window for many people.
Celebrity strength and nutrition coach Adam Rosante discusses the most effective and practical steps you can take to design a health plan that works for your life. “I know it can be extraordinarily difficult when we’re facing some of the challenges we are right now, so it’s important to take some time to think about what it is you really want,” says Rosante. “What do you want your life to look like? If one of the things on your list is improving your health, you’ve got to put it on the calendar and just start moving. At a certain point, you’re train-wrecking yourself. A phrase I use a lot is ‘cut the shit and do the thing’.”
And Dr. Theresa Larson is a physical therapist, military veteran, and author who helps patients and organizations adapt to change, both physical and mental. “The fact is we have this pandemic and we don’t know when it’s going to end,” says Larson. “We can’t change that. But we have a lot more control over our own health than we think. We’ve had so much loss, and it’s heartbreaking. What can we do with that? How can we turn our wounds into wisdom and optimize the new normal? Diamonds are created under pressure.”
If you missed the first article in “The Road Ahead” series. Grief, Hope, and New Beginnings in 2021: COVID Changed Our Collective Brains, Hearts, and Businesses. Now What?, we highly recommend you give it a read.
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