"To breathe properly is to live properly" - Robin Sharma
This short final installment is how decision-makers can access calm through breathing differently. We also end with two 2-3min practices that have been shown to help stressed people decrease their heart rate and access calm.
We are all experts at breathing right?
We breath upwards of 20,000 times a day and therefore think we are experts at it. However, much like walking and running, there are some people who have taken this everyday activity and shared ways to make it work better for us.
Different ways of breathing achieves different effects. Decision-makers want to access a calm and alert state. Calm to make sure we are not making decisions out of fear or panic, and alert to make sure we apply the right amount of attention and effort to it.
Before we go on to the recommended breath exercises, there were some really surprising results that I encountered in my research.
2 (surprising) thoughts about breathing
1) We too often breathe through our mouths
In many cultures across the world, mouth breathing is actively forbidden, however it is estimated that up to a half of the adult population habitually breathe through their mouth.
The problem with mouth breathing is that it results in dry, cold and unfiltered air. Dry air causes a dry mouth and throat, cold air is inefficient for the process of oxygen exchange and the mouth does not have the filtration that the nose has so you end up getting more debris in.
It is thought modern lifestyle is pushing us towards mouth breathing. Due to processed foods, a lack of chewing results in stunted bone development in dental arches and the sinus cavity. This has the impact of leading to having a blocked nose which some people choose to counter by breathing in their mouths. Being overweight also puts pressure on the airways again making mouth breathing more easy.
2) Our breaths are too frequent and shallow
The average breath rate of an adult is around 16 per minute at rest. This is probably a bit on the high side, and a slower rate of breath is considered better. Overly frequent breaths lead to a state of hyperventilation, resulting in a higher heart rate and feelings of stress and anxiety.
The role of carbon dioxide is largely misunderstood - it is not always bad. CO2 is required in the blood in some quantities and frequent breathing lowers the carbon dioxide too much. CO2 in the blood helps oxygen replenishment in the red blood cells and widens our blood vessels which increases overall blood oxygen. Frequent breaths reduces carbon dioxide in the blood resulting in lower oxygenation.
If the breaths are less frequent they need to be deeper, this is boosted by nasal breathing. We end up filling our lungs more when breathing through our nose and the increased effort required makes us try harder and end up taking in a lot more air. This full breath helps build our lung capacity and strengthen our breathing muscles. It's no surprise that when people are advised to regain composure they are asked to 'take a deep breath'.
The brain needs plentiful oxygen when making decisions so decreasing our breathing rate with fuller breaths is helpful.
The basics of breathwork
Depending on which state you are trying to access there are two main ways you can change your breathing.
1) Slow the inhale or exhale: Breathing techniques that slow the inhale can generate more heat and increase heart rate, whereas techniques that slow the exhale can generate more calm.
2) Frequent or few: Frequent breaths increases the heart rate and fewer breaths reduces it
Most techniques use one or more of these variations. For example the Wim Hof method which is considered a great warm up for physical activity uses frequent breaths and gets the heart rate up, whereas yoga breath, slow inhales and even slower exhales tends to reduce the heart rate.
Two effective breath exercises to promote calm
1. Box breathing
Box breathing is a really effective 2 minute exercise (or longer if you fancy). I has 5 simple steps:
1) Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4
2) Hold for a count of 4
3) Breathe out from the nose for a count of 4
4) Hold for a count of 4
5) Repeat 8 times
This exercise is balanced on exhales and inhales and therefore is good to regulate i.e. can use both if heart rate is too high or too low for example if you have just woken up. it can be varied in length and you can increase the count to 5 or more if it is too easy for you. Box breathing leaves me feeling calm and alert. It is also a great way to improve your lung capacity, and because you are holding your breath, you get plenty of CO2 in your blood too, to help optimise oxygen flow.
2. Physiological sighs
Another very simple 2 minute exercise with proven benefits is physiological sighing. A sigh is an involuntary response to frustration or stress, and so replicating it to induce calm derives the same benefits. It has 4 easy steps:
1) Inhale deeply through the nose
2) Inhale a little bit again
3) Exhale through the nose or mouth slowly
4) Repeat 10 times
Overall people find breathwork helpful for prepare them for exercise, improve their lung capacity and most importantly for decision-making gets plentiful oxygen to the brain to help access calm. Please give it a try without further ado.
How is this relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:
1) Breathing has a significant impact to our state of mind, sleep and general health
2) We probably breathe through our mouths too much and take too frequent shallow breaths, slower deeper breaths provides more oxygen to our brains.
3) By varying the inhale and exhale, and taking more or less frequent breaths we can create different states of mind. Box breathing and physiological sighs are very effective short practices to access a calmer state of mind.
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Other blogs in the meditation series: