Many of us think that breathing is the most boring and natural thing in the world. We do it all day every day without thinking. But a host 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 the way you breathe can have profound effects on your mental and physical health. Learning to breathe more deeply can remedy debilitating chronic health conditions, while simple breathing exercises help cure insomnia. And according to Stanford neuroscientist and professor Andrew Huberman, changing the way you breathe can also stop stress in its tracks.
A kill switch for your stress response
This idea comes from a massive five-hour podcast with former Navy Seal officer Jocko Willink. If that sounds like an inordinately heavy time commitment, Medium writer Charlotte Grysolle has helpfully extracted 15 actionable tips from the conversation. If you’re at all interested in the broader conversation around body hacking and self-improvement, his article is well worth a full read.
But an idea came to me both for its simplicity and its usefulness. Huberman calls it the “psychological sigh” and promises that with it, you can hijack your body’s stress response and instantly turn off that feeling of mounting stress panic we all dread.
The trick is based on a simple fact of anatomy. When you inhale, your diaphragm and other muscles move in such a way that your chest expands, leaving a little more room for your heart. In response, your heart also expands just a tiny bit, which slows down the blood flowing through it slightly.
“Neurons in the heart pay attention to blood flow, so they signal to the brain that blood is moving slower towards the heart. The brain sends back a signal to speed up the heart. So if your inhales are longer than your exhales, you speed up your heart,” says Grysolle.
The reverse happens when you exhale. Everything contracts, including your heart. Your blood speeds up and your heart slows down. This is exactly what you want to happen, you are stressed and your heart is starting to race. This means that “if you want to calm down quickly, you need to make your exhalations longer and more forceful than your inhales,” concludes Grysolle.
How to use the “psychological sigh”
How exactly do you achieve this? You use the “psychological sigh”, which is a great expression for a simple change in your breathing rhythms. It looks like this:
Two short breaths through the nose
A long exhalation through the mouth
Repeat one to three times
Other experts have suggested adding a few simple hand movements 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 more about this slightly more elaborate technique here, but both anti-stress tips work on the same principle: longer exhalations and slower breathing act as a circuit breaker for your stress response.
So the next time your heart races 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.