The Power of Breathing

Did you know that you can increase your personal effectiveness by simply increasing your breath awareness? Research shows that the average person wastes 5 1⁄2 hours a week due to unclear communication. Research has also linked breathing with increased influence, confidence, presence … all leading to career advancement.

If you’ve ever breathed a sigh of relief or gasped in pain, you know that even our language recognizes a close connection between the way we breathe and how we feel.

In fact, when you understand how respiration interacts with your mood, you can train your breathing to help you handle your emotions. The right breathing technique can calm you when you’re feeling tense, enable you to really focus on a task or keep you from blowing up at someone. It can also help dramatically change the way you sound, since breathing patterns are the foundation of vocal production.

You experience this powerful mood and breathing connection every time you get highly emotional. When you’re depressed or sad, your breathing tends to be very shallow with frequent sighs. When you’re feeling anxious, frightened or angry, you unconsciously have pauses of varying length between your breaths, or even hold your breath.

Athletes, martial arts practitioners and singers all know that breathing is the key to physical performance. The way we breathe – whether it’s short, shallow breaths through the chest or deep, slow breaths from the diaphragm – directly communicates with the powerful vagus nerve that runs through the chest cavity up to the brain. The vagus is linked to nerve receptors in the lungs, and is connected to the limbic center in the brain, which controls our emotional reactions. Making your breathing calm and steady, instead of shallow, jerky or full of prolonged pauses, can help make your mind calm and steady and can help you achieve increased relaxation, concentration and vocal control.

If you often feel tense, you may be breathing from your chest rather than from your diaphragm. The diaphragm is the strong, cone-shaped muscle that forms the floor of the chest cavity which helps move oxygen in and out of the lungs. Check your pattern; place your hand on your upper chest. If it rises when you inhale and contracts when you exhale, you’re chest breathing.

This type of breathing pattern is very common, and less effective. It gets in huge amounts of air at once and activates the fight-or-flight alarm reaction – good in an emergency but not otherwise helpful. If you chest breathe regularly, you keep your body in a state of chronic stress. Chest breathing fills only the upper lungs, where oxygen-absorbing blood cells are sparse. The result: you breathe faster to meet your body’s oxygen needs and cause the limbic center of the brain to dump stress-related chemicals into the bloodstream, such as adrenaline.

In contrast, diaphragmatic breathing tells the body that everything is calm and alright because air goes into the lower lungs, which are rich in oxygen-extracting blood cells. The vagus nerve, going from the lung to the brain, then transmits a message of relaxation, and you are able to breathe more slowly. The next time you are feeling pressured or stressed, practice this type of breathing.

To breathe from the diaphragm, place one hand on your upper stomach, keeping your entire hand above your belly button. Inhale as if you’re filling a small balloon inside your stomach. Your stomach should gently rise as you inhale (as the diaphragm pushes down to make room for the expanding lungs) and fall as you exhale (as the diaphragm moves up to the lower chest to push the air out of the lungs). Your upper chest and shoulders should stay motionless. Once you’re breathing from the right spot, focus on making your breath as even and steady as possible. You’ll find your tension dissipating within about two breaths. With practice, this skill becomes automatic.

Be aware that at first, this breathing pattern may feel unusual or strange. It may even feel backward to you! If that’s the case, it means you have been chest breathing so long, you’ve forgotten how to belly breathe. If you’ve ever observed a sleeping infant, however, you saw that they innately belly breathe from the diaphragm. That’s how we all begin, but stress causes us to move the breathing pattern up into the chest.

You can further expand your stress-busting expertise by slowing your exhalation. Exhaling slows the pulse rate, when your breathing becomes balanced and even, slow your rate of exhalation until you are breathing out twice as long as you breathe in. Count to six as you exhale and three as you inhale. Do 10 to 20 repetitions of this breathing pattern in meetings, traffic or when otherwise stressed out. The workplace today forces us to over-schedule our lives. Calming your breathing pattern allows you to take time for yourself so you have the resources to deal more effectively with others. Try it today. Increase your breath awareness in meetings, depositions, interviews … and observe how your personal effectiveness increases.