Breathe: Master Your Mind & Body
Conquer fear, control stress and anxiety, boost performance, and master your physical and mental state.
The Power of Breath
Our breath is one of the most powerful and effective tools to immediately change our mental and physical state. This is the case for two reasons.
The first is that we always have access to our breath. Sure, working out may calm you down and help you regain control over your brain state. But if you’re two minutes away from stepping on stage to deliver a presentation, this fact won’t do you any good.
However, knowing how to manipulate your breathing pattern in a certain way will help you completely and instantly transform your emotional state and physical presence.
This leads to the second reason which is that we can instantly change our breathing pattern. By consciously taking control of and manipulating our breath, in a moment’s time we can calm down enough to regain the mental clarity required to deal with the stressor at hand.
The power of the breath lies in that it is a tool you cannot lose and that you have complete control over.
Two Sides, Same Coin
The breathing pattern we’re experiencing at any given moment is derived from one of two paths.
Path one is when a breathing pattern occurs naturally as we’re exposed to events that cause different emotions to arise within us. Although we don’t notice it, when we laugh, experience joy, become afraid, cry from sadness, or get stressed out our breathing changes.
This is called emotional breathing. We aren’t choosing to breathe in a certain way, but are doing so due to our present experience.
The second path, volitional breathing, occurs when we exert the power of our will. In other words, when we consciously decide to change our breathing pattern. For example, if we’re about to step on stage and decide to exhale slowly in order to calm down, we’re breathing by our own volition.
All of this is to say that our breathing pattern and emotional state are inextricably tied. The emotions we experience change our breathing which can further exacerbate our mood. If we feel stressed right before giving a presentation, our breathing speeds up as does our heart rate. This reflects itself in our posture which is hunched over and small.
The end result is a downward spiral by which negative emotion, stress in this case, fuels fast shallow breaths, which cause bad posture that makes our breathing worse, and so on. We’re caught in a negative circuit caused by emotional breathing.
Although initially appearing negative, we can use this loop to our advantage. By consciously changing how we’re breathing (volitional breathing) we can disrupt this negative circuit and gain immediate control over our emotional state.
Control Stress & Anxiety: The Physiological Sigh
The fastest way to calm your nerves and gain temporary relief from stress and certain types of anxiety is the physiological sigh.
One of the hallmarks of someone who is stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or undergoing some degree of panic is an elevated heart rate. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense.
When our ancestors were roaming the planes of Africa and crossed paths with a pride of lions, they immediately entered an elevated state of alertness (stress, anxiety, panic). Their heart rate shot up in order to shuttle blood to the major muscles which helped them rapidly move away from or otherwise deal with their source of concern.
Since the world we live in now is so drastically different, this evolutionary mechanism sometimes plays against us. When we’re trying to present ourselves as cool, calm, and collected while delivering a presentation or stepping into an interview, an elevated heart rate and related stress hallmarks impair our ability to speak clearly and present ourselves with confidence.
Thankfully, where evolution fails us in the modern world, it provides us with useful alternative mechanisms. We can breathe in a certain way to directly control the heart rate and minimize the stress response in general. Here’s how it works.
The Physiological Sigh
Next time you’re feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, panicked, or simply want to change your emotional state, try this protocol:
Do a double inhale (the first breath will be larger than the second).
Follow the double inhale with a long exhale.
Repeat 1-3 times.
If you can, perform both inhales through your nose and exhale through your mouth. If you’re unable to breathe through both your nose and mouth, use whichever one you can for the entire sequence.
Regardless of the source of the stress you’re suffering from, the physiological sigh acts immediately and will drastically reduce or eliminate the stress response. Once you calm down enough to regain composure, you can deal with the matter at hand.
One caveat worth noting is the rate at which your heart rate decelerates. Your heart rate may not decrease as fast as you expect during and after performing a few physiological sighs. This is a good thing.
If your heart rate dropped too fast you would pass out! Expect your heart rate to take 20-30 seconds to come back to baseline. You can continue sighing as it lowers if you choose.
Boost Productivity: Box Breathing
We’ve all experienced post-lunch performance deterioration before. We finish lunch and return to work only to feel tired, distracted, and unmotivated. Box breathing is a short and simple practice that can help you get back on track.
Just as a box has four sides, box breathing has four steps:
Inhale for 5 seconds.
Hold for 5 seconds.
Exhale for 5 seconds.
Hold for 5 seconds.
Repeat this pattern of slow breathing and breath holds for 5-10 minutes to reset when your cognitive or physical performance needs a boost.
More Breathing Strategies & Tools
Intentionally manipulating your breath is an extremely powerful tool that can change your physical and mental state instantly. Although the two practices covered so far, the physiological sigh and box breathing, have been targeted at two specific objectives, stress reduction and productivity, the applications are endless.
It’s up to you to experiment with various practices in different situations and see how they make you feel. You might find that the physiological sigh is great for relieving stress and also helps you kickstart a productive afternoon.
Here are a handful of other situations where you may find breathwork to be an effective strategy along with the tools, other breath practices, that can improve your state.
Dealing with Depression
We all become depressed at times. I’m not referring to clinical depression, but the kind of sadness that hits us in waves. Whether it’s one off day or a string of days that you don’t feel like yourself, we can all agree that it’s unpleasurable and we want those negative emotions to subside as quickly as possible.
A breathing practice can serve as a disruption to the circuit of negative emotions that constitutes being depressed. By disrupting this circuit that left unchecked would become worse with time, we begin to break it down.
Breaking this loop is the first step to climbing out of the hole of sadness or depression. Since changing our breathing takes very little effort and can revamp our entire brain state almost immediately, it’s a fantastic first step to start feeling better.
Once breathing helps us escape the rut of being caught up in negative emotion, we can start to do the other things that we know will make us feel better like getting a solid night’s sleep, cooking nourishing food, or crushing a workout.
One of the drivers of emotional breathing, which is the type of breathing that happens automatically by no intention of our own, is the amygdala. The amygdala, a cluster of almond-shaped cells, sits near the base of our brain and plays a key role in processing threatening and fear-inducing stimuli.
Since our brain state has an impact on how we’re breathing, the amygdala is influential in determining how we breathe when encountering something that kicks our fight-or-flight instincts into gear.
In the modern world, this instinct is triggered by events as benign as scrolling social media that bring up emotions such as stress, anxiety, aggression, and fear.
The good news? We can use our knowledge of the two-way relationship between brain state and breath to our advantage.
If brain state determines our breathing pattern, then we can change our breathing to alter our emotional state. The type of breathing that will most effectively reduce your fear reaction can be determined through experimentation with the protocols introduced here.
More Breathing Practices
In addition to the two extremely powerful breathing techniques already covered, the physiological sigh and box breathing, here are a few more techniques that will expand your breathing toolkit for dealing with life.
Wim Hof, famously known as The Iceman, has accomplished extreme feats from swimming between drilled holes below the surface of frozen lakes to running a marathon through the scorching Namibian desert without drinking water.
One of the pillars of the Wim Hof Method (WHM) is a breath practice. For your convenience, I’ve pulled the routine from Wim’s site and pasted it below. But first a disclaimer (from Wim)!
We recommend practicing right after waking, or before a meal, when your stomach is still empty. Note that WHM breathing can affect motor control and, in rare cases, lead to loss of consciousness. Always sit or lie down before practicing the techniques. Never practice while piloting a vehicle, or in or near bodies of water.
Step 1: Get Comfortable
Assume a meditation posture: sitting, lying down — whichever is most comfortable for you. Make sure you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction.
Step 2: 30-40 Deep Breaths
Close your eyes and try to clear your mind. Be conscious of your breath, and try to fully connect with it. Inhale deeply through the nose or mouth, and exhale unforced through the mouth. Fully inhale through the belly, then chest and then let go unforced. Repeat this 30 to 40 times in short, powerful bursts. You may experience light-headedness, and tingling sensations in your fingers and feet. These side effects are completely harmless.
Step 3: The Hold
After the last exhalation, inhale one final time, as deeply as you can. Then let the air out and stop breathing. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again.
Step 4: Recovery Breath
When you feel the urge to breathe again, draw one big breath to fill your lungs. Feel your belly and chest expanding. When you are at full capacity, hold the breath for around 15 seconds, then let go. That completes round number one. This cycle can be repeated 3-4 times without interval. After having completed the breathing exercise, take your time to bask in the bliss. This calm state is highly conducive to meditation — don't hesitate to combine the two.
From personal experience, I found the Wim Hof breathing method to be very enjoyable. I left each session feeling refreshed, reinvigorated, and mentally and physically primed to tackle the rest of my day.
Tummo is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist meditation and breathing practice that translates to ‘inner fire.’ This article provides a step-by-step guide on how to perform the practice, however, since I’ve yet to experiment with Tummo, I have no insights to share.
General Breathing Principles
Every breathing practice is composed by purposefully manipulating a combination of three variables – inhales, exhales, and breath holds. We can change our heart rate, which is central to many physiological responses including those induced by stress and fear, by altering our inhales or exhales.
As a general principle, your heart rate will decrease when your exhales are longer and more vigorous than your inhales. On the flip side, your heart rate will increase when your inhales are longer and more vigorous than your exhales.
That’s All, Folks
Next time you’re in a sour mood, feeling anxious or stressed, trying to overcome fear with courage, want to boost your performance, or simply feel like you need a reset, I encourage you to experiment with these practices. A short breathing practice can have a profound effect by disrupting negative circuits and changing your brain state immediately.
Life’s too short as it is. We don’t want to fill the precious time that we have with negative emotion and suffering when turning our day around is only a few breaths away.
Have fun out there.
Love the simplicity of this. We take our breath for granted. Knowing how to use it for our challenging moments is SO helpful. Thanks for these great strategies!!