Editor’s Note: Join Dana Santas for a four-part series to learn how you can breathe better to live better. Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.” Here’s Part IV.
In Part I of this series, I introduced you to the concept of breathing as a superpower, capable of impacting almost every aspect of your body and mind. In Parts II and III, I shared how you can use your breathing to move better and sleep better. In this final installment, we look at breathing’s role in stress management and concentration. I also share breathing exercises to help you achieve a more focused, calm state of being.
Breathing is one of the most effective ways to manage stress because it leverages your own physiology and requires no special tools. In as little as 90 seconds, deep breathing can stimulate a physiological “relaxation response” that tones down your body’s “fight-or-flight” response by inhibiting stress hormone production, lowering blood pressure and decreasing heart rate.
In short, how you breathe matters; the quality of your breathing pattern affects your ability to mitigate stress. In fact, a dysfunctional breathing pattern can fuel your stress response, even when you are trying to use your breathing to calm down.
Read on to learn how to avoid a faulty pattern and optimize your breathing for stress relief, calm and focus, the same way elite athletes like former World Cup champion skier Lindsey Vonn do.
Overbreathing and stress: A vicious cycle
When we’re stressed, we are often told to take a deep breath.
What happens when you do this?
If you’re like most people, you put the bulk of your effort into taking a big inhale and your exhale is an afterthought.
Unfortunately, focusing too much on inhalations without fully exhaling can lead to overbreathing: inhaling more than exhaling, akin to hyperventilation. Overbreathing activates your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, which, in turn, activates your stress response and engages rapid, shallow breathing. Consequently, overbreathing is part of a vicious cycle with stress.
Because overbreathing doesn’t allow carbon dioxide levels to rise enough for proper oxygen exchange in the bloodstream, you feel like you aren’t getting enough oxygen, which leads you to try to inhale more. The irony is that instead of inhaling, you actually need to exhale and pause for carbon dioxide levels to rise enough to be able to use the oxygen from your inhales.
Extend the pause between breaths
The carbon dioxide you exhale has an unfair reputation as being merely a waste product, when it’s actually essential for oxygen exchange and regulation of your nervous system.
When you get stuck in a chronic overbreathing pattern, your nervous system becomes overly sensitive to rises in carbon dioxide. As a result, your nervous system almost immediately sounds an alarm to inhale whenever you pause between breaths. Left unchecked, this perpetuates the cycle of overbreathing, fueling your stress response, which feeds more overbreathing.
To check in with your nervous system’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide levels, try this:
Inhale gently and then exhale fully, but not forcefully. At the end of your exhale, pause without breathing and count in your mind how many seconds it takes until you feel the need to breathe in again. Don’t wait until you feel panicked; pause only until your body prompts you to inhale.
How long were you able to pause before inhaling?
You should be able to pause for at least 20 seconds, and for elite endurance athletes, that number is closer to double, according to Patrick McKeown, author of “The Oxygen Advantage.”
The sensation you feel urging you to inhale comes from chemoreceptors at the base of your brain stem designed to monitor carbon dioxide levels and signal to your brain when you need to breathe. If that sensation came up more quickly than 20 seconds, it indicates that you are overbreathing to some extent.
In previous articles in this series, we covered the benefits of nasal breathing versus mouth breathing for both enhanced oxygenation and better posture. Nose breathing also helps combat overbreathing. The nose is innervated specifically for breathing, so it sends more accurate information to the brain regarding the need to slow down exhalations. This helps you avoid expelling carbon dioxide too quickly.
In addition to nasal breathing, I recommend practicing the exercise below on a daily basis:
Extended pause practice
Sit comfortably in an upright posture with your hands resting on your lower ribs to guide and monitor their movement, as shown in this video.
Begin by inhaling and exhaling through your nose and then pause without breathing while you count to 10 in your head. Repeat the breath in and out of your nose without force and add two seconds to the pause for a 12 count. Continue repeating the nasal breath and elongating the pause by two seconds each time until you can no longer add time without surrendering to your “inhale alarm.”
Strive for effortless inhales that are soft and soundless while treating your exhales like gentle, extended sighs of relief. During the pauses, try to keep your mind as calm as possible.
Breathe into the power of presence
In Part I of our series, Yankees all-star Aaron Judge talked about how our breathing work improves his posture and helps him move better. I also train athletes to use their breath to enhance their focus under pressure. For instance, a pitcher on the mound needs to be able to monitor players on base to avoid a steal without being overreactive and distracted from throwing strikes to the player at bat. To help, I teach him how to use his breathing, not only to mitigate stress, but also to act as an anchor in the present moment.
Paddy Steinfort, senior performance coach for the Boston Red Sox, said the power to leverage your breathing for focus and calm is twofold: “First, it stimulates the physiology that counteracts the fight-or-flight response, ensuring you’re in a physically optimal state to perform; and second, it provides a focal point for your attention that is not emotion or threat-based, ensuring you’re mentally engaged in proactive action, even under the most intense pressure.”
Your breathing is always happening in the here and now, acting as your most profound connection to the present. And that connection can be very powerful for performance — just ask Lindsey Vonn.
In a recent interview with Vonn on Steinfort’s “Toughness” podcast, she shared what she called a “big moment” early in her career.
Vonn said she would “always get really, really nervous” before competition. Recalling a time when she was 13 or 14 and competing in an international race for juniors that her father had told her would likely propel her to go on to become a World Cup champion, she said this:
“The second run, I’m in second place. I was just freaking out. Like, I was totally freaking out, so nervous, and I just … I don’t know … I just started breathing, like trying to lower my breathing. And I said, ‘I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.’ I just said it over and over and over. And I just skied and I won.”
Vonn realized the power of being present through her breath to help her regain her focus and conviction to win.
That power is available to all of us at any time. To access it, try this simple exercise:
From any position, wherever you are, focus your attention on the sounds and sensations of your breath. Feel the expansion and contraction of your rib cage. Direct all of your senses to follow the path of air in through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs and out again. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath, happening in the here and now. Take as few or as many breaths as you need to establish a sense of calm presence.
Practice breathing like this any time you feel stressed and need to reconnect to the present.
Breathing to calm anxiety
One of the consequences of overbreathing and chronic stress is anxiety. Because anxiety often manifests with shortness of breath, the relevance of deep-breathing exercises for anxiety cannot be overstated.
The deep-breathing exercises I’ve shared above, and throughout this series, can all help combat anxiety. However, alternate nostril breathing has been specifically shown in research to help ease anxiety.
Alternate nostril breathing
To practice, sit comfortably, resting your left hand in your lap. Fold down the middle three fingers of your right hand, leaving your thumb and pinkie extended. Traditional yoga has you leave your ring finger extended as well, but I have found it’s difficult for many people to comfortably hold that hand position, so I cue extending the thumb and pinkie only.
Use your right thumb to close off the right nostril.
Inhale slowly through your left nostril.
Now close off your left nostril with your pinkie, releasing your thumb off your right nostril.
Exhale through your right nostril.
Now, inhale through the right nostril.
Use your thumb to close off the right nostril.
Exhale through the left nostril.
The directions above are for one round of two breaths. Try five to 10 rounds to start, gradually building up to more. Practice this exercise a few times per week or as often as necessary to help you curb anxiety.
Practicing all of these breathing exercises shared above, you’ll notice your overall breathing rate begins to slow, quieting your inhale alarm and making you less reactive to stressors. With less reactivity, you’ll be able to spend more time present in a focused calm state.
And, if you’ve been following along through all the series articles, you now have a foundation of knowledge and tools to start using your breathing as a superpower in all aspects of your health and wellness.