Volume 11, Letter 36 Vision and Breathing
August 23rd, 2021
Do you praise effort more than ability?
100% said yes. that is great news for our kids!
Do you let your kids conflict resolve without intervention?
65% said yes
Vision and Breathing
What are the connections between breathing and vision?
Dr. Huberman, a Stanford Neurobiologist has been researching this topic for years and his findings are fascinating.
From a 2020 Scientific American article: "But Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University who studies the visual system, sees matters a bit differently. Stress, he says, is not just about the content of what we are reading or the images we are seeing. It is about how our eyes and breathing change in response to the world, as well as the cascades of events that follow. Both these bodily processes also offer us easy and accessible releases from stress.
Huberman’s assertions are based on both established and emerging science. He has spent the past 20 years unraveling the inner workings of the visual system. In 2018, for example, his laboratory reported its discovery of brain pathways connected with fear and paralysis that respond specifically to visual threats. And a small but growing body of research makes the case that altering our breathing can alter our brain. In 2017 Mark Krasnow of Stanford, Jack Feldman of the University of California, Los Angeles, and their colleagues identified a tight link between neurons responsible for controlling breathing and the region of the brain responsible for arousal and panic."
Did you know that your eyes are actually extrusions of your brain out to receive visual environmental stimuli? During embryology, the eyes actually grow directly from the brain into the position that we see them in at birth. In effect, eyes are your brain sitting outside the skull to rapidly assess the external world and make an immediate response to a perceived threat.
When you are stressed, fascinating things happen visually. Your pupils will dilate, the eye's lens position changes, an inward rotation of your eyes occurs leading to your field of vision narrowing blurring the periphery focusing everything to the front and close up. This process allows the stressed mammal to visually focus on the perceived threat. This process is intimately tied to the activation of the entire nervous system whereby the hormone cortisol and the neurotransmitters epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine flood the system in preparation to run away from the threat. Cortisol activates the release of energy and shuts off inflammation and other non necessary processes for the acute problem.
Think about the evolutionary logic of this system. You are walking in the woods and you see a panther. What happens:
1) Your eyes hyper focus on the threat sending electrical impulses throughout the brain
2) Your brain signals the adrenal gland to release tons of norepinephrine and epinephrine stimulating blood flow via increasing blood pressure and heart stroke volume while shunting blood to your muscles and brain improving mental clarity and arousal for the sole purpose of escape and survival
3) Your adrenal gland also releases cortisol increasing sugar availability, mobilizing fat for energy, and decreasing inflammation and other unnecessary metabolic activities
4) You have a brain enhanced memory to the event. This last part is critical to why we remember acute trauma so well. The cortisol response makes sure that the brain remembers where you saw the panther and how to avoid this situation again.
5) Immune enhancement for pathogen killing in the event that you are injured
It is an elegant system until we become mismatched between the types of stress, how frequent they are, and for how long. If you can imagine living with a metaphorical panther in your house daily, i.e. abusive relationship, then you will be persistently wide eyed but narrowly focused on the perceived threat. Your stress hormones will be firing all of the time and that has tremendous long term downstream effects including:
1) Metabolic derangements of hyperglycemia, fat deposition and insulin resistance leading to diabetes, coronary vascular disease, hypertension, obesity, cancer and COVID death risk
2) Changes in satiety hormones cause excess eating desires that promote metabolic derangements that for a loop that is self reinforcing. Chronic cortisol and neuropeptide Y drive food seeking behavior
3) Inflammation through cortisol response element resistance leading to uncontrolled NFkB release which promotes systemic shifts in inflammatory mediators that promote all disease types
4) Mood fatigue and dysregulation through persistence of excessive epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. The constant state of arousal will task the system into fatigue, anxiety and ultimately depression
5) Sleep architecture is disrupted. Hyperarousal and neurotransmitter activity coupled to cortisol excess has dramatic effects on sleep patterns. Decreased deep sleep and restorative sleep occurs leading to a loop of fatigue and mood changes leading to further dysregulation of hormones and sleep and around and around
6) Immune polarity shifts away from TH1 pathogen killing and toward a TH2/Treg immune tolerance downregulation
Remember that these responses are evolutionarily baked in for our safety. Running from a panther takes energy which is the exact reason that the above effects in the short run are so useful. Increased mobilization of fats and sugar, increased hyper alert states and so on are life saving traits for humans. It is only our poor choices that allow these fabulous survival systems to be counter productive for us. Sit with this thought for a while when you are worried about the same unfixable problem of life whatever it may be. Come to terms with your reality wherever you find yourself. Do not fight against your fate so much as always aim to be the best version of yourself wherever you find yourself. Help those around you see the blessings where they see losses. Teach your children through word and example how you see the world and how you diffuse your obstacles, stresses and frustrations. This is a fundamental need for humans. We must reduce the panther's presence in our lives.
I have said this many times of our culture. We are all blessed despite the myriad problems that people espouse to have and claim victimhood from. It only takes a second to watch the real life trauma of Afghanistan and the poor people there to realize our great fortune. Please focus on all of the positive aspects of your children, your life and everything around you. Please stop perseverating on that which you cannot change and change that which you can to be the best human that you can. Smile at anyone and everyone that you see. Work tirelessly at your craft and build the self esteem that will ground you during tough times. I will commit to you all that I will continue to work tirelessly here and in clinic for your children during these hard times.
Ok, so how do we really tackle this problem actively? Back to the eyeballs and brains!
What is the reversal of stress? Relaxation. If we stare out into the horizon, we in effect visually reverse the process of fight or flight. Thus, it is possible to alter your state of arousal by avoiding a narrow focus and breathing in a 4/7/8 pattern. When I was in Arizona learning from Dr. Weil, he made a point of emphasizing how powerful this 4/7/8 breathing pattern was in inducing the parasympathetic tone of relaxation. Thus, right off of the bat we can change our state of mind and stress by getting up every morning and staring out into the distance while practicing the relaxing breath. Here is a link to Dr. Weil's breath work page and a video.
The to do:
1) Change your state of mind by practicing positive mindset thinking and being grateful daily for what you have
2) Make a habit of staring out into the distance multiple times a day while meditating on the horizon, praying for inner peace or saying a positive mantra to yourself
3) Practice the 4/7/8 relaxed breathing technique
4) Work the other fundamentals of lifestyle medicine including exercise, healthy eating, adequate sleep and toxin avoidance
5) Seek out a counselor or life coach if you find yourself stuck in a negative mindset rut or a mood disorder place
Let us see the distance that we were meant to see,