It’s funny to think that a biological process that is necessary for survival is underrated, especially one that occurs automatically with no mental energy required. We inhale and exhale 12 – 16 times a minute, for as long as we live and rarely give it a second thought. 

And that is the problem. 

Breathing is rarely discussed in fitness or sport and our idea’s surrounding it are often ill-informed. If you had the opportunity to experience or practice breathing growing up thank your parents for their progressive approach, it was likely born out of yoga or meditative practice, both of which have only recently entered the mainstream. I have always been cautiously skeptical of most aspects of spirituality or alternative thinking, the byproduct of living in a traditional home in a small Northern community with a mother in healthcare. I wanted science and hard facts told by someone in at least a Halloween costume lab coat – that’s a Bill Burr joke – and that sector was not distributing any information. It meant I was breathless for a long time.

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned breathing as an action our nervous system performs subconsciously, which is true. But, we also now know that we possess the ability to manipulate our nervous system through breathing, more specifically the vagus nerve which plays a major role in our nervous system regulation. We can influence our present state by altering the frequency and type of breaths we take. This, in turn, impacts our cortisol (stress hormone) release. We can decrease Cortisol by (1) reducing the number of breaths per minute and inhaling deeply into our diaphragm. Or increase it by taking more rapid, shallow breathes. These changes in hormone release have a direct influence on our emotions, attitude, decision making, and productivity.

So, how do you breathe?

For most of us, rapid and shallow breathing is our default. Years of bad posture, minimal movement, and high-stress levels have turned us into a walking state of panic, think movie chase scene where the main character stops in an alleyway, almost hyperventilating. This type of breathing contribute to excessive stress hormone release, fatigues us faster and increases the likelihood of illness. It also wreaks havoc on our mood and emotions, making us miserable to be around.

For the record this has never happened when I have attempted to impersonate a peacock.

My friends have a funny term that they will use when I get upset, it’s the peacock. The reason is probably obvious, I do my very best impersonation of the bird, puffing out my chest, pulling back my shoulders, flaring my arms slightly and becoming as big as possible to respond to whatever has upset or frightened me. This is actually a very primal threat response so I imagine they also do it, or, maybe I’m just lower on the evolutionary scale than the average human. Then, the moment passes and we all have a laugh at my expense. The overwhelming majority of the time it turns out to be a situation that was nowhere near qualified that response. I am always envious of individuals that remain level-headed throughout all situations never letting their emotion get the better of them and refusing to rise to the bait.

Monitoring emotional responses to life and work problems is unbelievably beneficial, arguably vital. Negotiation, problem-solving, and people management are all skills that work best when you remain level-headed and clear thinking. In a previous article, I mentioned a few employers I had worked for in the past and how their response to problems trickled down and impacted the rest of the company – unfortunately not for the better. Calm is contagious and breathwork is a crucial part of maintaining that calm. The number of studies examining breath and the effects on the nervous system have risen dramatically over the past few years. ‘Breathwork therapy’ is being used to help with depression, anxiety, emotional and pain management amongst other things.

In addition to helping with emotional management, breathing can have a major upside for performance in both the business and athletic arenas. Several top entrepreneurs credit meditation and breathwork as one of their keys to success, Tim Ferriss, Scott Amyx, Laird Hamilton are all strong advocates of intentional deep breathing. Onnit founder, Aubrey Marcus, believes so strongly that he dedicated an entire chapter in his latest book to educating and implementing breathing as a method for dealing with overwhelming situations. It’s easy to do, immediately implementable and has tangible benefits.

A How To Guide

  • A quick and easy drill to help understand the difference in styles of breath involves your two hands and the floor.
  • Lie on your back, place one hand on your sternum, and the other on your belly button.
  • Inhale normally and notice what hand rises, it will likely be the one on your chest.
  • Now inhale through your nose and focus on the pulling the breath down into your belly.
  • The bottom hand should start to rise as well. Continue breathing slowly (5-7 seconds/ breath) until the top hand is still and only the bottom rises.

Ma, Xiao et al. “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults” Frontiers in psychology vol. 8 874. 6 Jun. 2017, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874

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