A Breathing Technique for Reducing Stress

6 mins read

Straight up – if you’re not already aware of Andrew Huberman’s work, you need to be. He’s hosting a data driven podcast about all kinds of brain-hacks. Ideas that can help you discover everything from the importance of hormones to the best way to lay out your workspace. No really, pop open a new tab and check him out. Beyond a breathing technique, Huberman has a treasure trove of insightful data.

I stumbled over one of his Instagram posts that got me to thinking. A good topic with actionable moves could revolve around breathing techniques.

Huberman explains a specific breathing technique called the ‘physiological sigh’. Before I dive into what that looks like, I want to explore some of the data regarding how a sigh can affect us. As it turns out, that deep breath has quite an array of changes it can produce in our mental state. Further, this study found that the sigh is a critical function of survival, imposing arousal if evoked during hypoxia.

The physiological sigh

Per an article from the UK Government, the act of exhaling gets our brain to send a signal to slow our heart rate down. However, when we’re agitated and breathing quickly, our breathing is more shallow and we experience a limit in the gas exchange needed to keep a more regulated mental state. In a convenient clip from his podcast, Huberman describes the act of mindfully sighing. To induce the same calm that we experience in the moments before we fall asleep, inhale deeply twice and exhale fully for 1-3 repetitions.

Much in the same way that we use exercise, mindfully sighing is a way to help control the mind with the body. In fact, double inhalations with deep exhales repeated for one to three times may be the fastest way we know of to bring our body back to baseline when we’re experiencing stress. I like to think of this breathing technique like a tool in my toolbox. It’s not something I have to use every time I’m working, but when I need it, it’s there.

How to use this breathing technique

Our Alveoli are impacted by breathing techniques like the psyiological sign

To efficiently add this breathing technique to your arsenal, it’s important to understand what is happening.

In our lungs are little sacs of air called Alveoli. These collapse over time, limiting the amount of oxygen we can pass to the rest of our body. When we can’t take in as much oxygen, more carbon monoxide starts to move around our bodies thereby signalling a stress response. Inhaling twice ‘pops’ these sacs open, enabling them to be filled with fresh air. Then, when we have a long exhale, we can get rid of the excess of carbon monoxide we’ve developed.

To engage this breathing technique, try to remember in a moment of stress that breathing can help. Take two deep inhales and exhale completely. I use this technique to great success in moments where I know something is about to happen.

Box breathing

Similar to this idea, I was introduced to the concept of ‘box breathing’ in my recruit class. For example, this was introduced to me as a means for conserving air in an SCBA bottle. I most recently found this technique through The Working Mind for First Responders course. From a list of ideas we could use to help defuse a stressful situation, Box Breathing is a technique developed by US Navy Seals for overcoming stressful situations.

To use box breathing, concentrate on the following pattern. First, breathe in for four seconds. Then, pause for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds and finally, pause once more for four seconds.

I have used this technique, like the physiological sigh, on actual calls to help center my mind on the task at hand. When I’m on scene, it’s almost to the point now where I can actively engage this process. These techniques can be drilled like a skill. Both techniques can be easily adapted into any training scenario to help trigger you to mindfully breathe through stressful situations.

Wanna learn more about breathing and your brain?

Check out this book with a foreword from Andrew Humberman!

We respond to events that are inherently stressful. These techniques can help optimize our experience by giving us the means to fight back against involuntary stress reactions. Similarly, the way we prepare to face these situations can help mitigate sub-optimal reactions. Above all, when we’re better positioned to respond, everybody is better off. Keeping breathing techniques in mind is a great way to facilitate a healthy response to emergency scenes.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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