Many of us think of breathing as the most boring and natural thing in the world. We do it all day every day without thinking. But a host of experts insist we're underappreciating the incredible power of our breath.
You may have heard something similar from your yoga teacher, but hard science agrees that changing how you breathe can have profound effects on your mental and physical health. Learning to breathe more deeply can turn around debilitating chronic health conditions, while simple breathing exercises help cure insomnia. And according to Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and Stanford professor, changing how you breathe can also halt stress in its tracks.
A kill switch for your stress response
This insight comes from a massive five-hour podcast with ex-Navy Seal officer Jocko Willink. If that seems like an excessively hefty time commitment to you, Medium writer Charlotte Grysolle has helpfully excavated 15 actionable tricks from the conversation. If you're at all interested in the broader conversation around body hacking and self-improvement, her article is well worth a read in full.
But one idea stuck out to me both for its simplicity and usefulness. Huberman terms it the "psychological sigh," and promises that with it you can hijack your body's stress response and instantly turn off that panicky feeling of mounting stress we all dread.
The trick is based on a simple fact of anatomy. When you breathe in your diaphragm and other muscles move in such a way that the chest expands, leaving slightly more room for your heart. In response your heart expands a tiny bit as well, causing the blood within it to slow slightly.
"Neurons in the heart pay attention to the rate of blood flow, so they signal to the brain that blood is moving more slowly to the heart. The brain sends a signal back to speed the heart up. So, if your inhales are longer than your exhales, you're speeding up your heart," Grysolle explains.
The opposite happens when you breathe out. Everything contracts, including your heart. Your blood speeds up and your heart slows. Which is just what you want to happen you're stressed and your heart is starting to pound. That means, "if you want to calm down quickly, you need to make your exhales longer and more vigorous than your inhales," Grysolle concludes.
How to use the 'psychological sigh'
How exactly do you accomplish that? You use the 'psychological sigh,' which is a big phrase for a simple change to your breathing rhythms. It looks like this:
Two short inhales through the nose
One long exhale through the mouth
Repeat one to three times
Other experts have suggested adding some simple hand motions to this basic breathing pattern to distract your mind from racing thoughts and add to the stress-busting effects of the breathing pattern. You can read about this slightly more elaborate technique here, but both stress-busting tricks rest on the same principle: Longer exhales and slowed breathing act like a kill switch for your stress response.
So next time your heart is pounding before a big presentation, an important pitch, or a high-stakes meeting, remember Huberman's psychological sigh and take back control of your stress response. It's as easy as taking control of your breathing.