Stressed? 3 Techniques To Use Our Breath To Manage Our Emotions
Breathe to relieve, breathe to achieve
Breathe to relieve, breathe to achieve
No matter how much is on the line, they manage to make it happen.
One of the things you’re admiring in them is their mental toughness.
But when we describe an elite athlete as “mentally tough,” we’re often referring to one specific element of their high-performance mindset — their ability to manage their emotions in the heat of the moment.
Whether they need to relax and cool down, or amp up, they can get where they need to be to perform. And that’s a skill that many of us can train and benefit from as well.
We’re going to focus on how our breath can be used to relax us during high-pressure situations or stressful times so we can perform our best.
Maybe they’re just born with the innate ability to manage pressure when it matters most — like height or big hands?
Possible, but not likely! The ability to regulate emotions in high-pressure and stressful performance situations is likely a skill they’ve trained over time.
And managing pressure really boils down to their ability to manage their emotions. For those of us who aren’t athletes, situations where we need to manage our emotions could include public speaking, interviews, or tough conversations.
The first tool is to learn to use your breath to elicit a calming response from your body and mind.
This is a relaxation skill — it can be used as your body and mind are tempted to go into overdrive panic mode, and it allows you to proactively keep yourself calm, cool, and collected.
You might be skeptical — how can your breath possibly have that big of an influence over how you keep calm under pressure?
Well, the answer is that breathing for relaxation is actually based on a neurophysiological response. When our body goes into panic mode — the fight, flight, freeze mode — our body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear.
For example, if you were walking down a trail and suddenly a tiger crossed your path, the sympathetic nervous system would kick into gear and send signals to your body that say, “HEY! AH! A TIGER! TIME TO GET UP OUTTA HERE!”
The sympathetic nervous system then triggers a series of physiological reactions that help your body respond accordingly, like increasing your heart rate, sending blood to your muscles, sharpening your vision and hearing, and getting glucose into your bloodstream to give you the necessary energy to respond.
However, when this response by our sympathetic nervous system becomes maladaptive is when it gets kicked on in situations that are not the same as seeing a tiger, but are perhaps perceived threats, such as when the game is on the line, or when we’re giving a presentation, or we’re stressed out about the news.
One of the best ways to combat this maladaptive response by the sympathetic nervous system is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which essentially engages opposite actions to calm the body down.
And a great way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is by using our breath, such that we slow down and deepen our breathing, slowing our heart rate, regulating our blood flow, and sending relaxation signals throughout our body and mind.
Now that we’ve explained a bit of the science behind it, let’s get into how we actually do it, shall we?
For each technique, settle yourself into a comfortable seated position. If you’re new to deep breathing practices, you may consider having one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest.
For each one, try and slow and deepen your breath such that the hand on your stomach rises before the hand on your chest (that means you’re deepening your breath, which is good!).
1. Box Breathing (shareable image below): Box breathing incorporates a few pauses. Once you’re settled and ready to practice harnessing your breath, breathe in to a count of 4, pause for a count of 4, breathe out to a count of 4, and pause for a count of 4. Continue this pattern for 2-5 minutes, depending on your comfort and skill level.
2. Deepening the Breath: Once you’re settled and ready to deepen your breath, slowly breathe in to a count of 6-8, whatever feels comfortable to you, and then out to a count of 6-8. Back to a count of 6-8, and out for a count of 6-8. Think of your breaths like the gentle waves of the ocean, gradually coming ashore, and then retreating; coming ashore, and then retreating. Continue this rhythmically for 2-5 minutes.
3. 4-7-8 Breathing: This pattern of breathing is similar to Box Breathing, but reinforces a more forceful exhale, which can help elicit a stronger “releasing of stress and tension” sensation. Once in a comfortable position, breathe in for 4s, pause for 7s, and forcefully exhale for 8s. Repeat this cycle up to 4 times.
In addition to simply trying out these techniques, it’s important to practice them on a semi-regular basis. Remember how we said relaxation is a skill? And do we master a skill by doing it once or twice? No way! We make a skill stronger with regular, intentional practice.
Consider going through one or a few of the breathing techniques on a daily basis. It only takes a few short minutes, and the more you practice intentionally, the more skilled you will become at using your breath to calm your stress response.
Give them a try, and you’ll soon be on your way to using your breath to relieve — which will help you achieve!