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How to Adapt to the Other Epidemic


Image: Bernard Goldbach (flickr/topgold), CC BY 2.0

My previous posts on COVID-19 reflected optimism in our ability to manage this pandemic. My uplifting view still stands, but with solemnity towards the undeniable morbidity being suffered by many.

My optimism was originally bolstered by the statistics coming from China via the World Health Organization and their daily Situation Reports. But looking at current stats and the behavior of SARS-CoV-2 outside of China, the WHO numbers—in my view—clearly do not add up.

Further, there are allegations of negligence pointed at the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, related to biased reporting in favor of China; add to that, the WHO’s reluctance to declare a pandemic. While it’s hard to separate politics from public health policy, the math is revealing.

The reality of COVID-19 requires us to adapt to new and more accurate data coming from the CDC. SARS-CoV-2 appears much more virulent than expected if one were to model off of the WHO’s accounting in China. While I believe that temporarily shutting down a large portion of our economy is a prudent adaptive response to this coronavirus, it does present a new epidemic of fear as our livelihoods diminish.

This fear can not only impact mental and physical health but also lead to further economic depression. So it would benefit us all if we could control this fear by adapting to the current stress.

The Stress Response

The stress response is a mechanism of self-preservation. It helps us “get off the X” whenever there’s danger. But under prolonged hardship, the stress response becomes counterproductive as it diminishes our ability to maintain health, suppresses immunity, and clouds strategic planning.

You can quickly turn off the stress response (fight-or-flight mechanism) through quiet breathing. This is not about silence, but rather a contrast to forced breathing.

Quiet Breathing vs. Forced Breathing

Quiet breathing occurs when you rely mostly on the diaphragm muscle. It is the platform beneath the lungs that contracts to allow lung expansion. After that, minimal energy is required. Air naturally flows in to fill the increased lung volume. No muscle contraction is required for exhalation; simply relax, and the elasticity of the diaphragm and lungs will push air out.

Forced breathing occurs during exertion and often during times of stress. Accessory muscles in the neck and torso are recruited to expand the rib cage and increase lung volume as much as possible. This allows in more oxygen so the body can do more work, but also produces more carbon dioxide. So in contrast to quiet breathing, this requires contraction of accessory muscles (including the abdomen) to forcefully excrete excess CO2.

Forced breathing is part of the stress response, as it fuels the energy required to get off the X. It also occurs during chronic stress where the survival instinct is set to full-auto. The adverse effects of chronic stress are worsened by the inefficiency of forced breathing during this time: the accessory muscles trying to force air into the lungs are working against a usually tense abdomen that is placing upward pressure on the lungs.

It takes self-awareness to switch back to quiet breathing when stress becomes chronic. Doing so will allow revitalization, normal immune response, and clear thinking.

Because the context of the present pandemic will vary depending on your personal situation, there is no one solution for navigating this challenge.  But the clear thinking afforded by quiet breathing will help you find a way.

Mastering the Quiet Breath

Master your breath by straightening your posture and inhaling through your nostrils. The restricted airflow (compared to mouth-breathing) will help regulate your pace so you can achieve a calm inhalation lasting 5-7 seconds.

Nasal breathing also warms the air as it passes through the turbinates. The increased temperature increases the air pressure to further expand the lungs without the use of accessory muscles.

Relax your abdomen to allow your lungs to fully expand. When done properly, you may get a sense of the diaphragm beneath your lungs. This is the muscle that contracts to draw in air.

You may exhale either through your mouth or nose since there is no need to regulate airflow during this phase. There is no need to time the exhale, either. Just focus on relaxation and let the pressure in your lungs escape naturally. This is done by relaxing the diaphragm, not by pushing the air out. (Forcing air out through muscle contraction can simulate stress and adrenalize the body.)

Rinse (carbon dioxide) and repeat.

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