Taking a deep breath
Have you ever felt a bit nervous, overwhelmed or even panicky and had someone say to you ‘take a breath’ or ‘take a few deep breaths’? As common as this advice is, does it really help? What does it even mean? The former suggests that taking a moment or stepping back is helpful. The latter suggestion implies that there is something physiologically beneficial about deep breathing when you are anxious. Unfortunately neither are really true.
Stepping back may occasionally help but at best its benefits are hit or miss. Similarly, when someone suggests you should take a deep breath, what they actually mean is take a large breath; they say deep but they mean large. These are not the same thing at all. Deep breathing is about taking the air deep into the base of your lung, regardless of how much actual air you take in, whereas a big breath is all about volume, not where in the lungs the air goes.
A deep breath can help improve the oxygen levels in your blood, if you know exactly how to actually take a deep breath - it involves flaring your lower ribs as you inhale. A large volume or big breath, can be helpful if you are training your intercostal muscles, preparing to go diving, singing or other activities, where a large amount of air would help. Neither is particularly useful when you are anxious.
What happens when we are anxious?
When we are anxious, panicky or overwhelmed our breathing is often rapid, erratic, and shallow. We tend to over breath and this can lead to too much oxygen in the blood, not too little, therefore techniques to increase oxygenation are not very helpful. So can changing how we breathe when under pressure help at all? The good news is that it can actually make a massive difference but we need to know exactly what to change about our breathing, in order to get the benefit.
There are twelve separate parameters to our breathing that we can learn to control and, if we alter the right parameters, we can change our physiology instantly, in a way that can help us when we are under pressure. In order to perform well under pressure the most important dimension to our breathing is not the depth, volume or even the speed. Rather, we need to change the rhythm of our breath. Rhythm means creating a fixed ratio of the in breath to the out breath. Exactly what the ratio is matters less than the fact that it is fixed. The reason that rhythmic breathing is beneficial when we are anxious is that it changes our heart rate, or more accurately our heart rate variability (HRV).
What is heart rate variability?
When we go to the doctor and he takes our pulse and tells us our heart is beating fast, say 80 beats per minute, he is actually taking an average over 15 seconds. What he or she is ignoring, is the fact that our heart rate changes between every single beat. This constant fluctuation in our heart rate (see Figure 1 above) is normal, and increasing the amount of heart rate variability (HRV) has been shown to significantly improve health and well-being. Changing the pattern of HRV can also improve brain function, particularly when we are under pressure.
When you breathe rhythmically, the pattern of your heart rate fluctuations change almost instantly. Normally when you are nervous or panicky, the pattern of change in your heart rate resembles the fluctuations of a needle recording an earth quake. This chaotic electrical signal (see Figure 2) generated by the heart is sent to the brain and can inhibit brain function, causing a frontal lobe shutdown. You may have noticed it yourself as you struggle to think clearly in stressful situations. At those moments, inside the body, your breathing is erratic, rapid and shallow, causing your HRV to become chaotic, creating a DIY lobotomy and you are left looking a lot like that proverbial rabbit in the headlights.
To avoid this brain shutdown, you need to change your breathing and change your physiology. Breathing rhythmically will change the quality of the signal from the heart to the brain, from a chaotic to a coherent signal. A coherent electrical signal looks like a sine wave, compared to the earthquake fluctuations that occur when you are nervous (see Figure 2 below). These coherent signals will help your brain function regardless of pressure, allowing you to be the best you can be, under any circumstance.
How should you breathe to control stress?
When we feel nervous, anxious or threatened in any way our breathing pattern tends to become disrupted, resulting in HRV chaos and the impairment of frontal lobe function. The risk is our anxiety impairs our perceptual awareness and we do not even realise this has happened, because our awareness is inhibited. Conversely when we consciously control our breathing pattern, the HRV signal becomes more coherent and our cognitive functionality returns. This is not an all or nothing phenomena, as suggested in Figure 3 below, but happens by degrees.
The way to start performing much better, even under difficult circumstances, is to first control your breathing. To be precise the breathing technique we recommend is that you:
- Rhythmically (a fixed ratio of in:out breaths)
- Evenly (a fixed volume per second, to create a silky smooth breath)
- Through the
- Heart (focus your attention to your heart, not your abdomen or your thoughts)
- Everyday (repeated practice will make this your default breathing pattern within weeks)
With continued practice of this skill you can maintain perceptual awareness under any circumstance. Building on this awareness, if you use emotional self-regulation skills, you can change how you feel and you can then bring your A game every single day.
Instead of letting pressure, fear, or panic set in before a big presentation, you could control your breathing and then choose to replace pressure with determination, passion, energy, or appreciation, during your presentation. This will transform the results you achieve.
This ability to change how you feel on demand, under any circumstance, is genuinely life-changing - you never have to feel anything you don’t want to feel ever again. Instead of the anxiety getting you, you can control it. So next time someone says take a deep breath, tell them - no I’ll take a rhythmic, even, breath through my heart.