20 Minutes

February 3, 2020
Mark Bryan Director - Innovation + Research, Senior Interior Designer

MA’s own Futurist, and Senior Interior Designer, Mark Bryan, joined Kate Pedro, Licensed Counselor from Blue Boat Counseling, to divulge into the science behind what happens in the twenty minutes your central nervous system takes to deescalate from hyperarousal panic.

You’re sitting at work, engaged in your tasks attempting to stay hyper-vigilant and focused to complete your project by the deadline required. You slowly start to feel your heart rate climb, confused by what is happening, you start to breath heavier and at a rapid pace only to increase the rate of your beating heart. Sweat starts to bead up around your hairline; the room feels like a million degrees. “What is happening,” you ask yourself in your head. “Why won’t this stop?” Waves of emotion and panic start to wash over your body as you feel completely out of control, with no idea as to how to stop this madness from happening. Hyperventilating, you attempt to gain control of your body only to induce more fear.

This, is an anxiety attack.

You may have experienced this before, maybe not quite to this extreme, but I would imagine some moment in your life has felt too overwhelming to try to process. All too often we try to muscle through our day and not pay attention to what our body needs in order to maintain just basic living. When we hit that wall, we need to recognize that our bodies are trying to tell us something. If we don’t we run the risk of getting to such a high level of stress that anything becomes a trigger, and we may reach our tipping point with anything else that comes up no matter how small. Before you know it, missing the elevator doors before you have to make it to your next meeting is all that it takes to send you over the edge.

Believe it or not, much of our response to stress comes from our primitive ancestors and their experiences with danger. Here’s what it looks like to your brain today – When you are facing a deadline that you aren’t sure how to achieve, trying to find a new babysitter because your standby canceled, or any number of daily challenges your brain starts to kick into stress-mode. Unbeknownst to your conscious brain, your amygdala was triggered to warn you of an oncoming threat. Your prefrontal cortex may not understand it yet but the amygdala is reading something unsafe. Telling you, “you have to stop and figure this out or we will not make it.” This is the part of your brain that triggers your “fight or flight” response. You don’t have to understand why you rip your hand away from the hot stove until it’s happened and you have time to process. What many fail to recognize is that the amygdala can be triggered without any imminent threat of safety and is often ignored, and a threat can be as simple as worrying about next month’s rent. All of these reactions in the brain are releasing hormones into your body that are causing muscles to tense, blood vessels to constrict, and your immune system to drop. This response is normal and is typically only supposed to last for up to 3 minutes. What we deal with today is chronic stress – due to the constant bombardment of stimuli and triggers. With chronic stress, we see a rise in heart disease, weight gain, sleep loss, and other stressors that pile onto the ones we already had. It becomes a vicious cycle. To reduce the consistent release of cortisol and adrenaline, we need to calm down the sympathetic nervous system.

You can attempt to rationalize yourself out of your panic for as long as you’d like, but unless the parasympathetic nervous system kicks on and you physically calm down your body, your prefrontal cortex won’t be able to understand anything. According to researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina, the body requires 20 minutes of controlled breathing and removal from the stressful stimulus in order to calm the sympathetic nervous system (symptoms described above). Through diaphragmatic breathing, a practice of pushing out your belly during your inhale and keeping your chest stable, the parasympathetic nervous is able to be triggered to lower heart rate and relax muscle activity. In short, we need to make sure we are breathing better. How many of us find ourselves holding our breath as we deal with issues throughout the day?

In order for you to completely focus on your breathing, removal from the stressful stimulus is required. Step away from the person that you are engaging with. Remove yourself from the computer that is sending you signals of pressure, or the phone that is telling you about your latest tweet. Step into space where the only thing that matters is you and your breathing. This is our respite space. Once your physiological response has calmed your prefrontal cortex, your rational brain that is able to process information will be useful again. What’s important about this is that now that you have had the chance to be mindful and calm the body and mind, you can start to reframe the situation. You can start to create a plan or a strategy to find a solution. This is why we advocate for respite rooms, in order to build better resiliency, to help with decision fatigue, and to be more productive. The amygdala triggered you for a reason. Don’t ignore it or it’ll find you again to make sure you hear it the second time.