This article is the fourth in a series of five study tips to get you ready for taking the Praxis Core tests.
I will begin by teaching you a bit about the human brain, which regrettably does not come with an owner’s manual. Some parts of our nervous system (speech, voluntary muscle movements, etc.) are under our control. The part not under our conscious control is called the Autonomic Nervous System. This controls the digestion of our food, the action of the immune system, kidney function, the release of hormones—all the stuff that happen on “automatic pilot” without our having to think about it or do anything.
The Autonomic NS has two complementary components: (1) the Sympathetic Nervous System: this revs the body up in excitement and stress; its full arousal activates the fight-or-flight system. (2) the Parasympathetic Nervous System: sometimes called the “relaxation response,” the “rest and digest” system, or the “feed and breed” system. To understand their relationship, it’s helpful to understand them in an evolutionary context.
The SNS’s primary purpose was to keep us alive in the face of an immediate physical threat: a tiger about to eat us, an avalanche coming down hill toward us, etc. It’s for those moments when high-energy physical activity is needed. The SNS makes the breath rapid and shallow. It elevates heart rate, releases cortisol (i.e. stress-juice), and directs energy and blood flow to the outer musculature. It temporarily suspends digestion and immune function, because these in-the-background functions don’t matter in the face of an immediate physical threat. The SNS also shuts down higher-order thinking, creativity, intuition, etc.; in the face of an immediate physical threat, thinking becomes very concrete and practical. The feeling tone of high SNS arousal is fear, panic, anxiety, and stress.
The PNS is designed to keep us alive and well when there’s no immediate threat, which presumably is most of the time. Heart rate slows, and breathing becomes deep and slow. Muscles relax, and both digestion and immune function and libido are enhanced. Thinking becomes more relaxed and spacious, and capacities such as imagination and creativity can open. The feeling tone of the PNS is warm & fuzzy.
Now, just think: of these two, where would you like to spend the majority of your life?
Now, we can talk about stress in a modern context. Stress is the inappropriate activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System to something that is not an immediate physical threat. Imagine someone who works at a job. This person has been late to work before, and has been reprimanded for doing so. This same person is now on the way to work, and absolutely stuck in a horrific traffic jam. Traffic is crawling along at around 5 mph, and there is no foreseeable end in sight. Now, this person understandably might worry about what his boss is going to say when he arrives late again. It’s as if the mind, that incredible pattern-matching machine, immediate imagines worst-case-scenario long-term consequences: “I will be late” = “My boss will yell at me” = “I will get fired” = “I never will get another job” = “I will die hungry in a gutter with no friends.” Something in the mind’s pattern-matching machinery detects a threat, so it fires up the full SNS and its fight-or-flight system. That person’s heart starts pounding, his muscles tense up, his breathing becomes rapid and shallow, his digestion turns off, and his thinking become rigid and constrained. He is all ready to fight, or flee from, a tiger, but there’s no tiger. There’s just the traffic jam in which he’s stuck, which is annoying but, by itself, offers no physical threat. In other words, the SNS has been activated under circumstances in which its effects are neither helpful nor relevant. This is stress.
Many people in the modern world have high stress lives, and they compound it by pursuing SNS-stimulating pleasure activities (e.g. TV, action movies, video games) and by eating SNS-enhancing foods (e.g. high-fructose corn syrup). This leads to chronic muscle tension, poor digestion, sexual dysfunction, heart problems, and other health issues. Approximately 90% of heart disease is entirely avoidable, but for decades, it has been the #1 killer of Americans: despite all the modern amenities, modern Americans are dying of broken hearts.
We can’t consciously control our heart rate or our digestion, but the one thing we can control is our breath. In fact, deep slow breathing is in many ways the “on-switch” for the PNS. Technically, the long slow exhale is what most stimulates the PNS. This connection between the breath and the PNS is one of the reasons all meditation practices involve deep breathing, and why yoga teachers are always saying “breathe.” If we practice deep breathing, then we are practicing activating the PNS, with all its good effect. The important thing, though, is that we have to practice.
If you can develop a meditation practice or a yoga practice or a taijiquan practice, that would be wonderful. Short of that, practice deep breathing whenever and wherever you can. At the start to get the feel of it, breathe in on a count of 10, and breathe out on a count of 20—as your breath gets deeper, you can increase those numbers! Make sure your big in-breath fills both your belly and your chest: on the in-breath, your belly should expand, your chest should expand and rise, and your shoulders should move slightly away from each other. Breathing this “big” may feel funny at first, but you will adapt to it with practice. If you practice this, say, for 10 minutes at the start of your day, then you may be on your way to developing a meditation practice!
Certainly you can practice deep breathing in all the “in between” moments of your day: waiting in line, riding in an elevator, doing dishes, in the shower, walking, even sitting in traffic. You can also practice deep breathing in classes and meetings, any place where you primary job is simply to listen. As you practice, notice the changes to your body, the changes in your mind, and the changes in your emotions. At first, the shifts may be subtle, hardly perceptible, but as you continue to practice and get skilled at activating your PNS, the effects will be quite palpable.
If you can remember to remain present with slow deep breaths as you study for the Praxis, you will remain relatively relaxed and be able to learn and remember more deeply. If you can remember to breathe deeply during the Praxis, your brain will get plenty of oxygen and your mind will be perceptive and able to make important connections. If you can remember to breathe deeply as a teacher when your classroom is starting to go kerflooey, you can take care of yourself and provide a very important example to your students. If you teach your student to value deep breathing, you will have given them an invaluable gift.
A habit of practicing deep breathing will help you on the Praxis, and it is likely to help you at many points in professional life, as well as ensure long-term health and well-being. Not bad, for a test prep tip!
Keep your eyes open for Study Guide Tip #5. And keep breathing deeply.