How to Use Breathing to Change Your Physical and Emotional State

How to Use Breathing to Change Your Physical and Emotional State

We all take between 15,000 and 20,000 breaths a day, but it's unlikely that you think about it much unless you're going from sea level to high altitude, in the middle of a hard workout, or having a panic or asthma attack. After all, breathing is automatic, right? Well, yes and no. Your body does respirate on its own, and yet you can also consciously control the levers and dials. That's what this post is all about – exploring different use cases when certain breathing strategies can alter how you feel, think, and perform in beneficial ways. 

Making Better Decisions

Have you ever noticed how you breathe before you head into a big meeting, sit down to discuss a tricky topic with a family member, or wrestle with a financial dilemma? If so, you’ve probably noticed that you’re taking shorter, sharper breaths, and these might be through your mouth. The pressure of making tough choices can exacerbate an existing breathing dysfunction or create a new one, and the more time you spend in suboptimal breath patterns, the more likely you’ll be to default to them.  

Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to break this vicious cycle. A study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology asked business school students to review an overwhelming amount of information about a fictitious company, including the struggles it was experiencing. They then breathed in and out using a 5-2-7 pattern (five-second inhale, two-second breath hold, five-second exhale), or waited for two minutes before answering questions that would lead to decisions about the company’s future.

The group that just took a break didn’t benefit, but the participants using the 5-2-7 pattern made better decisions and felt less pressure when answering the questions. The researchers explained that controlled breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps prevent you from getting stuck in a sympathetic state in which over-arousal could compromise your decision-making. So next time you’re about to walk into a high-pressure situation, try the 5-2-7 technique for a couple of minutes to make better decisions.

Getting Through Stressful Tasks

The definition of “stressful” is relative, but it’s fair to say that lying in wet sand as the freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean wash over you and instructors yell above the roar of the waves is not something anyone would call calming. This “surf torture” is just one of the high-pressure exercises candidates must endure if they’re to make it through Hell Week and the rest of BUD/S training to become Navy SEALs. Former commander Mark Divine has popularized a breathing technique he learned during his service. It’s called box breathing, aka the 4x4 method.

As the name suggests, this technique involves breaking your breath down into four sections like the sides of a box: inhale for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four. Another benefit is that box breathing can be a form of object meditation, in which imagining the four sides of the box or even just focusing on counting out the duration of the four phases keeps your mind centered on something other than the source of your stress. In a video for Barbell Shrugged, Divine shared box breathing tips and explained the benefits of breath control: “We can perform better, we can think more clearly, we can make better decisions while under duress, and we’re better leaders because we’re able to be more in control of our body, our mind, our physiology, and psychology.”

Dr. Andrew Weil, who leads the study of integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, is another vocal proponent of using breath to change your state. He first learned the 4-7-8 method from a mentor who was an osteopath, and has since shared it with high-performance groups in just about every sector, along with millions of people around the world who’ve watched his YouTube video. During an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Weil advised starting with four cycles of breathing in for four seconds, holding for seven, and breathing out for eight. You can eventually build up to eight rounds.

The secret sauce might well be the breath hold component. When people hyperventilate during a stressful situation or all-out panic attack, it’s often because they have low tolerance to carbon dioxide, which prompts them to breathe more rapidly. Using a protocol that includes a breath hold daily can build up your tolerance, removing the need to breathe too fast or often. “This is the most powerful method I’ve found to access the relaxation response, and it’s the most powerful anti-anxiety measure I’ve ever come across,” Weil told Ferriss.

Cycling Down at the End of the Day

By the time you get through dropping off and picking up your kids from school, all manner of meetings, rush hour to and from the office, or whatever your busy schedule consists of, you’re probably ready for a hot bath and cold beverage. But then there’s dinner to make, homework to oversee, emails to answer, and so on. The hectic nature of modern life makes it harder than ever before to wind down in the evening so that you can truly relax and prepare yourself for restful, high-quality sleep.

Which is where breathwork can be such a handy tool. Just a few minutes of focused, controlled breathing can help every system in your body counteract hours of accumulated worry, rushing around, and task-switching. So what is the best technique to use? We can look to heart rate variability (HRV) research for the answer. This metric, which is monitored by the Whoop Band, Apple Watch, and many other smartwatches and fitness trackers, is a key indicator of recovery and how well balanced your autonomic nervous system is.

A group of researchers asked 47 participants to try various breathing patterns and then objectively measured their HRV, while subjectively assessing how anxious or chilled out they felt afterward. They concluded that taking five and a half breaths per minute is the best rhythm for relaxation. The results can be a bit tricky to implement, as they equate to breathing in for 5.45 seconds and out for the same duration. But you can simplify it by aiming for five- or six-second inhales and exhales when you need to wind down, both of which still showed positive outcomes in the experiment.

The ratio of inhale to exhale duration can be just as significant as how often you breathe. Another study conducted by Dutch physiologists evaluated the impact of various breathing cadences on arousal level and HRV. The results showed that “Participants reported increased relaxation, stress reduction, mindfulness, and positive energy when breathing with the low compared to the high i/e [inhale/exhale] ratio.” In other words, when the subjects exhaled for longer than they inhaled, they felt calmer, and their bodies downshifted into recovery mode. Other research has shown that extending your exhale to twice as long as your inhale is best, so try breathing in for four seconds and then out for eight (this is called a 1:2 cadence).

If it makes you feel anxious to time your breath, forget the exact duration and just concentrate on relaxing your whole body as you breathe in and out evenly or take a little longer while exhaling. And make sure you only breathe through your nose, as this is more relaxing, provides better oxygenation than mouth breathing, and prepares you for deeper sleep, Patrick McKeown shared in his bestselling book The Oxygen Advantage.