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 number of experts insist that we underestimate 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 reverse 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 stop stress.
A kill switch for your stress response
This insight comes from a massive five-hour podcast with former Navy Seal officer Jocko Willink. If that seems like too much of a time commitment for you, Medium writer Charlotte Grysolle has helpfully unearthed 15 actionable tricks from the conversation. If you’re at all interested in the broader conversation surrounding body hacking and self-improvement, her article is well worth reading in its entirety.
But one idea struck me both for its simplicity and usefulness. Huberman calls it the “psychological sigh”, and promises that with it you can hijack the body’s stress response and instantly turn off the panicky feeling of increasing stress that we all dread.
The trick is based on a simple anatomical fact. When you inhale through your diaphragm, other muscles move in such a way that your chest expands, making a little more room for your heart. In response, your heart also expands a little, causing the blood in it to slow down a bit.
“Neurons in the heart are aware of blood flow, so they signal to the brain that the blood is moving more slowly to the heart. The brain sends a signal back to increase the speed of the heart. So if your inhalations are longer than your breaths, you speed up your heart , explains Grysolle.
The opposite happens when you exhale. Everything contracts, including your heart. Your blood speeds up and your heart slows down. That’s exactly what you want to happen, you’re stressed and your heart starts pounding. This means that “if you want to calm down quickly, you must make your exhalations longer and more powerful than your inhalations,” concludes Grysolle.
How to Use the “Psychological Sigh”
How exactly do you achieve that? You use the “psychological sigh”, which is a big phrase for a simple change in your breathing rhythms. It looks that way:
Two short inhalations through the nose
A long breath through the mouth
Repeat one to three times
Other experts have suggested adding some simple hand movements to this basic breathing pattern to distract your mind from racing thoughts and add to the stress-relieving effects of the breathing pattern. You can read about this slightly more elaborate technique here, but both stress-relieving tricks rest on the same principle: Longer exhalation and reduced breathing act as a kill switch for your stress response.
So the next time your heart pounds 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 simple as taking control of your breathing.