Breathing and Mental Performance

Imagine having a device that could adjust your state of mind as needed. For instance, picture yourself facing a nerve-wracking presentation. Your thoughts are racing, your anxiety is through the roof, and focusing feels impossible. No worries, you can just use this device to instantly feel calm and centered. Or maybe work stress has you drowning in tasks, and you’re overwhelmed. With the device, you can regain your composure in seconds, taking charge of your day. Even combating tiredness is effortless – whether you need to finish a paper or pull an all-nighter!

Can you envision such a device? And if it existed, would you get one?

You have such a device: It’s your breathing. With the breathing techniques I’m about to show you, you can diminish stress, induce calm, battle anxiety, and enhance your sleep, vitality, and concentration. Invest five minutes each day to reshape your outlook, take control of your mind, and kick-start your day. And the cherry on top? It’s entirely free and comes with zero adverse effects!

In this article, we will explore the science of breathing. We will discover how breathing works, what is normal breathing, and I will show you the 3 scientifically proven breathing techniques, which, if done for only 5 minutes a day, can help you relax and cultivate resilience. So, take a deep breath, and let’s dive in.

My journey

My own journey with breathing started in my youth and my beginnings in the world of martial arts. I remember the coach teaching me about rhythmical breathing, avoiding panic breathing, and how sharp exhales while punching improve speed and strength. This all seemed to come naturally and made perfect sense.

But it wasn’t until I saw a video of Rickson Gracie, a renowned BJJ blackbelt, doing his breathing practice that my fascination started. I remember watching him on YouTube, sitting on his knees on the beach, stretching out his diaphragm, and doing things I have never seen anyone do with their breath. Reluctantly, I decided to try it. I sat down on my knees in my room, closed my eyes, and started to breathe. Deep breath into the belly, forceful exhale, deep in, short out, and so on… After about five minutes, I felt charged and energetic. I also felt a sense of groundedness and focus that lasted throughout the day. This was my first realization of the power of the breath.  I knew there was something special about it; I just didn’t know what.

As my teenage years passed, I started having more responsibilities and more things chipping away at my time and focus. As I am fascinated with the mind-body connection, whenever I feel I am losing control, I turn to my body(check out this article on my personal journey). And so, I tried other practices over time, like yoga, different meditations, cold showers, etc. All of them, in some form or another, emphasized the importance of breathing. I would get contradicting information, such as one should breathe only through the nose or through the mouth, exhale in this or that way, etc. I was never really sure what the right way to breathe was or if it even existed, and there was no evidence to back up the different claims I had heard.

It wasn’t until I saw Wim Hof that, for the first time, I saw some scientific evidence that pointed to the power of breath. Even more importantly, I saw the interest and desire of the scientific community to research it. That was when I started incorporating breathing practices into my daily life, and I never looked back. Although researching breathing in this form is still relatively new, I finally have some answers, and I can’t wait to share them with you.

But before diving into the 3 scientifically proven breathing techniques promised in the beginning, let’s take a look at how breathing works.

The power of the breath

Breathing is important. We can go without food for months, without water for days, but without breathing, only a few minutes. Yet we often take it for granted. Besides not dying and the “good old” oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange, we know little about its impact on our psyche. Cultures and religions, yogic practices, and shamanic rituals have speculated that different breathing techniques can lead to many powerful effects, even to the sought-after nirvana.

However, behind anecdotal evidence and stories from the past, science is now discovering the true power of breathwork. Studies show that certain breathing techniques can significantly reduce stress, induce calm, combat anxiety, and improve sleep, energy, and focus. These effects happen in real-time and can translate into your everyday life. The best part? These scientifically proven techniques are effective, time-efficient, and bring staggering results. And it only takes 5 minutes a day!

Taking control of your own mind

Most biological systems designed to keep us alive are autonomous, meaning we don’t have control over them (e.g., digestion). Even the factors we should control, such as thinking, take practice and are hard. Breathing is a unique system that represents an interface between the conscious and the subconscious. We breathe without conscious control, just like we digest. However, we can, at any time, take control of our respiratory system, and change the patterns, durations, or strength of our breaths. In this way, we take control of the regulation of our body. In other words, by controlling breathing, we are attempting to control our own state of mind.

The Breathing Mechanism

Breathing is mechanical

To understand why we breathe, we need to know that our bodies require oxygen to function, especially the brain, which is highly metabolically active. The mechanical system of breathing includes the nose and mouth, the larynx, the lungs (which are bags that expand and shrink without any muscle), and the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which help move the lungs. The phrenic nerve plays a critical role in controlling the diaphragm’s movement and sending information to the brain about its position.

Breathing in and out
The respiratory system of humans while breathing in and out. Notice the diaphragm expanding and shrinking with every breath.

Breathing is also chemical

Besides the mechanical aspects, we have two main players, Oxygen(O2) and Carbon Dioxide (Co2). I have often heard that oxygen is good for us and that Co2 is the “bad stuff” we breathe out. However, that is not true. Co2 plays an important role in our body, especially in transporting and releasing oxygen in the bloodstream. For oxygen to jump from the alveoli (the tiny sacks in our lungs) to the bloodstream, it must attach itself to a protein called hemoglobin. This protein then carries it to other areas of the body. For hemoglobin to change its form and release oxygen, it requires Co2.

Breathing cycle
Gas exchange in humans. Both oxygen and carbon dioxide are transported around the body in the blood

Therefore, CO2 is necessary for oxygen to reach all parts of the body, including the brain. As a matter of fact, the lack of Co2 causes constriction of the blood vessels, lower blood flow to the brain, and is a reliable way of inducing panic attacks. So, if both Co2 and O2 are important, what is the right way to breathe? Well, it’s time to look at what healthy breathing means. 

What is normal breathing?

Are you an over-breather or an under-breather?

Studies have shown that most people over-breathe during the day and under-breathe during sleep. Over-breathing means they have too much oxygen and too little Co2, which can contribute to anxiety and stress. The O2 cannot get released from the hemoglobin, and the blood vessels constrict, reducing the O2 delivery to the brain by up to 40%!

Under-breathing during sleep can cause sleep problems, such as sleep apnea. Co2 piles up and you don’t have enough oxygen in your body to supply all of the functions necessary. This can result in feelings of restlessness, confusion, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, etc.

Over-breathing and under-breathing both lead to imbalances in our everyday lives that affect our minds and bodies. By tapping into our systems through breathing practices, we can learn to optimize our breathing, ground ourselves and keep that feeling throughout the day.

The healthy way to breathe

Technically speaking, the optimal O2-CO2 balance would be to breathe 6l of air per minute. This translates into roughly 12 shallow breaths or 4-6 deep breaths. Now, this doesn’t tell us much, since nobody in their right mind would measure their breathing all the time (unless you do, then it’s ok). But there is a way to train yourself to establish this balance. The correct pattern of breathing consists of two factors.

1. Breathe through the nose

Generally, breathing through the nose, deep into the diaphragm, is the most effective way to breathe. Breathing through the nose provides more resistance. This resistance causes us to activate the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, resulting in a deeper, fuller inhale. As it is natural, if you have a longer, fuller inhale, your exhale will automatically be longer. This way, we can have a more natural breathing pattern and establish the optimal ratio of CO2 and O2 in our bodies.

Fun Fact: Studies have also shown that mouth breathing causes dysfunction in our facial muscles, making us less attractive (see this book). By training people to breathe through their nose, these facial features can disappear, the jaw and cheekbone muscles get more toned, and the face becomes more attractive, which is mind-blowing!

2. Take pauses

The second noticeable factor in healthy breathers is their pauses between breaths. By training ourselves to breathe deeply through the nose and take small pauses in between, we can establish a more rhythmical and steady way of breathing. This will translate into our everyday lives, making our unconscious breathing more efficient. The most important effect these techniques might have is to correct the over- and under-breathing patterns most of us have, therefore improving our sleep, focus, and resilience.

How do we do this? Let’s look at the three main techniques and their features.

Breathing Techniques

How well do you breathe?- The carbon dioxide tolerance test

The first thing you need to do is test our carbon dioxide tolerance. All you need for this test is a stopwatch. Sit or lie down comfortably. Take a deep breath and start the stopwatch when you exhale. Try to steadily exhale as long as you can and measure the exhale time with the stopwatch. If your exhale time is in the range of 0-20s, write the numbers 4-6 for yourself. If you are in the range of 20-40s, write down 6-8, and if your range is 40-60s, write down 8-10. This test shows you how well you can control your breath on a mechanical and chemical level.

Now, you are probably wondering what these numbers mean. Keep these numbers in mind because you will need them for the breathing technique in the next paragraph.

Breathing Technique 1: Cyclic Box Breathing

Cyclic box breathing is a simple technique that helps develop neurochemical control of the diaphragm. The process is simple:  You set the number of seconds you will use; for example 4s. You inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4s, exhale for 4s, and hold for 4s. Then repeat. It’s that simple! Now use the numbers that you have from the carbon dioxide tolerance test to set your parameters for box breathing. If your number is 4-6, you can do box breathing using 4-6 second intervals. If your number is 8-10, you will inhale, hold, exhale, and hold again, each for 8-10 seconds.

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You can experiment around with the length of the intervals, but keep in mind that you should not be struggling to breathe or hold air at any moment. If your value is 4-6, you might have issues doing the 8-10s intervals. Start slow, and with time, you will notice that your intervals will get longer and easier.

This exercise aims to train yourself to breathe through your nose in regulated intervals with pauses in between. By practicing cyclic box breathing for only 5 min a day, you can reduce your stress levels, induce calm and composure, and train yourself to unconsciously breathe correctly throughout the day. This will also translate into your sleep and improve your sleep quality, reducing snoring and even treating sleep apnea.

P.S. – It is normal that one nostril or the other might be blocked or have less air go through throughout the day. Some people might have a difficult time breathing through the nose in general. It is a recommendation to train and try to breathe through the nose, nonetheless. If you have sleep apnea, it is a recommendation to put some tape on your mouth to keep it closed in your sleep, encouraging nose breathing.

Breathing Technique 2: Cyclic Hyperventilation with retention

So far, you might have already heard or even tried the Wim Hof Method. This method, as well as many of the pranayama and yogic breathing practices, would fall into the category of cyclic hyperventilation. Although there are differences based on the methodology, purpose of practice, and complementary practices, they are all based on hyperventilation. This happens when we take deep, forceful breaths through the nose or the mouth and either just let the air out or sharply exhale before quickly returning to the inhale.

The protocol entails repeating this for 20-30 breaths, after which comes a retention phase, where you will hold your breath for at least 15-30 seconds. As you get better at this exercise, you will notice that you can hold your breath for longer. Holding your breath longer is a positive thing, but remember that you should not force the breath hold and inhale as soon as you feel the urge. You can repeat the cycle if you wish to do so.

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The base of this method relies on the huge influx of oxygen into our bodies and cells and the lack of CO2. Due to larger inhales, the body also exhales more, releasing too much CO2, causing blood vessels to restrict, decreasing the blood flow to the brain. Adrenaline is released as the signature of stress, and our neurons fire at a rapid paste. This technique will heighten your senses; you might feel tingling sensations in your body and possibly some lightheadedness. Similarly to cold exposure, as you deliberately put your boy in a state of stress, you might feel more energized and motivated after it is over (check out this article to learn more about cold exposure).  

A word of caution: Do not try hyperventilation if you are prone to panic or anxiety attacks. As said before, by lowering Co2 levels in our bodies, we can induce panic attacks. Unless you are already experienced with these types of exercises, start slow, and be sure to be in a safe environment.

Breathing Technique 3: Cyclic Sighing (physiological sigh)

It is safe to say that I saved the best for last. In an excellent study, all three techniques were tested against meditation. The researchers compared their effects on stress reduction and mood improvement. Although all three methods showed significant stress reduction and improved mood when compared to meditation, cycling sighing was shown to be more effective than both meditation and hyperventilation/box breathing. What was so fascinating about the results is that:

  • Not only do cyclic sighing effects persist after the practice, but only 5 minutes a day is enough to induce significant changes in your mood and physiological arousal.
  • Even if you are not doing 5 min of breathing a day, ONLY ONE physiological sigh is enough to lower your excitability back to baseline in REAL TIME!

These are amazing results! This tool is the most effective way to reduce stress in real-time. If you feel anxious or nervous, if you need to give an important talk or a lecture, whatever it is, you could use the cycling sighing to ground yourself and relieve anxiety.

The physiological sigh is a simple technique. You take a deep, full breath through the nose, and then at the end of the inhale, you take one sharper inhale before a long exhale through the mouth. What this second inhale does, is allow you to reinflate the alveoli inside the lungs, bringing in even more O2, which in turn will produce a longer exhale and maximal discharge of CO2.

Simply put, one cycling sighing is:

1. A deep inhale

2. Followed by another short inhale

3. Followed by a long relaxing exhale through the mouth

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Cyclic sighing is just repeating these steps for as long as you want. The study mentioned above recommends a practice of 5 minutes a day for all techniques. This is perhaps a way to get “the most bang for your buck.” However, you can do it longer if you desire to. It is truly incredible that such a simple practice, with little to no time invested, can have such impressive effects.

How do I choose the right technique for me?

Both exhaling and inhaling are important for breathing balance. Breathing techniques that aim at relaxation emphasize the exhale, while those promoting energizing effects focus on the inhale. With a better understanding of these principles, you can experiment with and adapt breathing techniques to suit your needs.

For instance, I used to practice a hyperventilation style like Wim Hof, but I’ve recently shifted to box breathing. This technique helps me feel grounded throughout the day and improves my unconscious breathing. Don’t be afraid to try different approaches and find the best for you.

Extra tip: Using breathing for learning

Research consistently shows that exhaling during physical exertion is beneficial. For instance, boxers exhale when punching, and biathlon athletes exhale when shooting a gun. However, inhaling has been found to enhance our cognitive abilities (see this study). When we breathe in, our pupils dilate, and our ability to learn and recall new information improves. Inhaling through the nose has been found to benefit our cognition, memory, and learning even more.

But how can we use this knowledge to improve our learning? While we can’t just breathe in without breathing out, we can focus more on our inhales when performing cognitive tasks like studying or problem-solving. Taking deep, deliberate breaths or lengthening our inhales can enhance our cognitive performance. However, it’s important not to hyperventilate, so don’t overdo it.

Conclusion

Take control of the day

Breath is a powerful tool that can bring numerous benefits. Although the psychological study of breath is relatively new, it has already shown remarkable results. Some research even suggests that breathing techniques outperform meditation in reducing stress and improving mood. We live in a fast-paced world, constantly bombarded with information, stress, and challenges, which can take a toll on us. By setting aside just a few minutes a day to practice these scientifically proven breathing techniques, you can feel generally more grounded, focused, and calm, making it easier to deal with whatever comes your way. It might not be a magical device, but it sure works like one.

Personally, practicing these techniques has helped me feel in control of my day rather than being controlled by it. I hope that these techniques can bring you the same benefits and that you can integrate them into your daily routine. They are zero-cost and have no side effects, so why not try them out for yourself?

So, what are you waiting for? Give it a try and see the positive effects for yourself!

For those of you who want to know more and get deeper into the subject, I strongly suggest you listen to Huberman Lab and the podcast with Dr. Jack Feldman, one of the world leaders in understanding how the brain controls breathing.


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