My junior year of college I was driving back from a ski trip during a Vermont snowstorm when I shifted gears and lost control. We swerved across several highway lanes into a ditch, flipped, and rolled three times before landing upside down. Somehow, despite the airbags not activating, my friend and I climbed out unscathed. A couple days later, when I told the man at the car wreck center who I was, he said, “That’s not possible. No one could have survived that.” Yet somehow we did. And it changed us.
We both experienced profound inner peace and joked that we had become enlightened. This must be how it feels: deeply calm, yet gloriously joyful—filled with love and exuberance. I wanted to run around telling everyone, “Wake up! Be happy! You are ALIVE! Everything else is irrelevant—why in the world are you so stressed out!” I could see clearly how petty our daily worries are, how sweating the small stuff is such a waste of energy, and how much we all have to be grateful for.
Of course, that deep realization didn’t last. We inevitably got pulled back into the everyday concerns of college students. Yet that experience left me hungering for inner peace and is probably one of the reasons I became a yoga and meditation practitioner as well as a researcher.
One surprising thing I have learned is that Americans don’t usually value calm states. Our culture aspires toward high intensity, so if you ask Americans to describe “happiness” they won’t say “inner peace.” Instead, they will likely use words like “excitement” and “thrill.” People from East Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea), on the other hand, will likely use words like “calmness” and “serenity”—that is, low-intensity positive emotions.
Another thing I find surprising is that when Americans are faced with particularly unpleasant high-intensity negative emotions like stress or anger, we’re more likely to counter with more high intensity—such as running, to “blow off some steam.” But we should be careful: a new study shows that we are three times more likely to have a heart attack if we opt for exercise during high-stress moments. In other words, in terms of our nervous system and health, it’s probably not a good idea to counter high-stress emotions with high-stress physical activity.
Keep in mind that the mammalian nervous system is actually designed to revert to a place of calm or homeostasis. If you look at animals in the wild or even young children, you can observe how quickly their nervous systems calm down after anger or fear or upset. They typically don’t “blow off steam” by running (or drinking wine or shopping, for that matter) unless taught to do so. Instead, they typically rely on inner tools: they simply stop and breathe.
Research I have conducted with veterans shows just how powerful breath can be to heal traumatic and anxious feelings. After a one-week breathing program (the Sudarshan Kriya breathing), the Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans in our study had normalized. One month and one year later, the benefits were maintained, demonstrating the power within our own lungs to bring us back to a state of homeostasis and to heal our minds. Through breathing, you activate the rest-and-digest parasympathetic nervous system, deactivating the stress response. As you engage in these types of practices day after day, you retrain the body to regain its inner peace. You will find that you come back to a state of serenity more quickly after an upset, and that you are generally more at peace throughout the day.
Research also shows that calmer states make our attention broader—we can take in more information because we are not in a place of stress (which makes our attention narrow and self-focused). Because we are not in a state of fight-or-flight, our decision making is improved. We are likely to act with more emotional intelligence and skill.
Inner peace is not just a gift to yourself. It is a gift to those around you. As you may have noticed, when you enter a room in which someone is stressed or angry, you are more likely to feel your own feathers ruffle too. Research shows that we are prone to “emotional contagion”—something most of us have experienced. Similarly, when we cultivate a more peaceful and calm presence, we also gift that serenity to everyone we encounter.
Life inevitably throws us for a loop and we cycle once again through the whole range of emotions. But it is still well worth the time, effort, and commitment to simply breathe our way back to serenity. After all, as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar remarks, “The state of your life depends on the state of your mind.” When your mind is OK, everything is OK, no matter what’s going on.
Emma Seppala, is the author of The Happiness Track (being published March 26th) and Science Director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford Medical School.