It can be almost impossible to do deep focused work, and stay there, if you are feeling anxious, irritable, or have a thousand thoughts permeating your mind. The physiological lifespan of an emotion is actually just 90 seconds, but we tend to ruminate and hold on to the emotion and the thoughts it triggers for hours.
Numerous studies vouch for the role that deep and slow breathing can play in changing our disposition towards the world around us.
Slow, deep breathing essentially taps into our parasympathetic nervous system — responsible for restoring the body to a calm and composed state, contrary to the sympathetic nervous system which triggers the stress response and prepares the body for fight or flight.
A 2015 review published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience looked at 15 articles and concluded that slow breathing techniques (defined as less than 10 breaths per minute) promotes:
Interestingly, when we breathe out, our heart rate falls, and when we breathe in, it increases. This is known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia, but perhaps more importantly, it is a useful tool at your disposal in any moment.
Andrew Huberman, professor of neuroscience at Stanford, suggests channeling the ‘physiological sigh’ in moments of stress or tension. Essentially, the physiological sigh is defined as two inhales through the nose, followed by an extended exhale through the mouth.
“You have little sacks of air in the lungs, which increase the volume of air that you can bring in. Those sacks collapse over time, and as a result, oxygen levels start to go down and carbon dioxide levels go up in the bloodstream and body, and that a big part of the signaling of the stress response”, says Huberman.
So if you’re about to go on stage, or head into a big meeting, or host a podcast, and you’re feeling a little anxious, the fastest way to calm yourself is to practice the physiological sigh — one large inhale, followed by a shorter inhale to breathe in whatever additional oxygen you can, and then breathe out, typically for longer than the inhale, as this not only channels the parasympathetic nervous system, but also lowers your heart rate.
In the past decade or so, meditation has become increasingly popular in the west, buoyed on by influential personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Tim Ferriss, Sam Harris, as well as the advent of smartphones, which have made guided meditations available to all of us with the click of a button.
When we meditate, the frontal lobe — responsible for planning, reasoning and emotions, and the parietal lobe — responsible for processing sensory information, both go offline or quieten down significantly.
As with deep breathing, more alpha and theta brain waves show up, making us calmer and more creative.
Of course, breath-focused meditation also taps the benefits of slow breathwork, whereas mindfulness meditation — when we focus on appearances of thoughts, sounds, feelings, and bodily sensations in consciousness, has been shown to allay us of social anxiety, particularly for longer term (8 weeks or more) terms of meditating. In fact, longer term meditators generally report greater life satisfaction and peace with their inner and outer worlds.
So in terms of getting the best out of yourself at work, slow breathing and meditation can both help.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.