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‘Tis the Season …..

The holiday season is busy, busy, busy for many of us. Between holiday get-togethers, family visits, church events, room parent commitments for elementary school holiday parties, rehearsals and performances of holiday programs (Nutcracker, anyone?), preparation for winter studio recitals and concerts, the lines at the mall for holiday shopping and all of the grading that goes along with the end of fall semester, it’s no surprise that many of us are mentally and physically exhausted. Too often, we just do not make our own self-care a priority because we have too much stuff to do and not enough time with which to do it. We find that our breathing is shallow, often faster than normal. We’re stressed out, zooming around trying to meet deadlines, and often feel that we’re just “wired”. Somebody might even say “Take a few deep breaths and calm down.” That’s great advice. Read on to understand why!

Understanding the nervous system

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls things we are aware or unaware of, but don’t have voluntary control over, such as homeostasis and heart rate. The ANS has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is concerned with the “fight or flight’ response, while the PNS activates the “rest and digest” response. Many aspects of physiology have two components, which are functional opposites, that work together to control some type of reaction or response.

Here are some things that happen when our SNS is activated: increased sweating, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, reduced saliva production, respiration speeds up and stress hormones are dumped into our bloodstream. This protective response is normal if you’re being chased by a lion and have to run for your life!  However, the same response isn’t really necessary when you end up waiting for three cycles of the stop light before you can make the left-hand turn into the mall.

When a gazelle is being chased by a lion, its SNS should be cranking away like crazy— that’s what is supposed to happen. After the gazelle escapes to safety, the PNS comes on line and the gazelle goes back to peacefully grazing. The problem with humans is that we’re walking around all the time with our SNS activated. There’s a great book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky (

that discusses health issues that are exacerbated by the constant stress response.

Encouraging the PNS to show up to the party

So, how do we trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to come back online? Yoga, meditation, massage and a nice warm bath are great choices, but they require a certain kind of space and lots of time. Here’s a way you can hack your own PNS and all you have to do is BREATHE! It’s free, it’s always available to you and just takes a few minutes.

There is a wealth of scientific research that explains exactly what happens biochemically during PNS activation, but it’s really not necessary for the purposes of this article. When the length of the exhalation is longer than the inhalation, the vagus nerve sends signals to brain to boost the PNS and dial down the SNS. As a manual therapist, one of the first things I need to do is to get my client into a parasympathetic state before I can get to work, and I do it through breathing.

Box Breathing

I teach this technique to my college students as a useful strategy for calming pre-performance jitters. Curiously, the same set of symptoms of an activate SNS response can show up backstage before a performance! It’s called Box Breathing and is modeled after a technique I read about in a book called Unbeatable Mind (

by Mark Divine. Commander Divine is a retired Navy SEAL and founder of SEALFIT and the popular Unbeatable Mind Academy.

There are 4 pieces to the exercise – just like there are 4 sides of a box.

#1 – Inhale through your nose for a count of 4.

#2 – Hold your breathe for a count of 4.

#3 – Exhale through your mouth for a count of 8.

#4 – Wait for a count of 4 before starting again with #1.


Repeat the whole thing 4 times.


Summary: In for 4, Hold for 4, Out for 8, Wait for 4.

That’s it…. you can do this in your car, in between lessons, during orchestra breaks or long rests, before you take your flute out of the case, waiting in line at the coffee shop. If you have time and space, it’s great to do this exercise for 5-10 minutes when lying down on the floor.

The bottom line here is that this is an easy, free, quick way to help restore a bit of calmness for your body and mind. This time of year, we’re often over-scheduled and don’t have the time for getting to the gym, sleeping in, or scheduling massages, but we can all find a few minutes throughout the day to attend to our own breathing. And that is self-care …. taking the necessary time, even in small pieces, to care for ourselves.

  1. I have seen the same breathing technique (though not referred to as box breathing) used as a way to help people fall asleep. One slight difference, exhale for a count of 7. wow. In a sleep study, it was found that most people actually fall asleep within one minute. Of course, we’re talking about someone in a bed with a pillow, etc., not a musician using a calming technique.

    I have found it very useful to just close all the keys on my instrument, cover the tone hole with my mouth, and breathe slowly into the flute/piccolo. It warms the instrument, and at the same time calms any jitters. While I don’t normally experience performance anxiety, sometimes just the stress of getting to the gig, through heavy traffic, schlepping multiple flutes, maybe an amp, and setting everything up can elevate the blood pressure. Slowly inhaling for 4, then exhaling for more, and repeat, really helps calm the nervous system. And having a flute warmed up from the cold weather before you try to tune certainly is helpful!

  2. […] 3) Spend a few minutes getting your parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” component, to take over. The easiest way to do this is to attend to you breathing.  See Tis the Season article in the December 20, 2018 issue for more information about this. […]

  3. […] system, and thereby help get us out of sympathetic nervous system activation. {See Tis the Season (  to read more about the nervous […]

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