Many of us consider breathing to be the most boring and natural thing in the world. We do it every day all day without thinking. But many experts maintain 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 deeper can reverse debilitating chronic health problems, while simple breathing exercises help cure insomnia. And according to Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford, 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 ex-Navy Seal Officer Jocko Willink. If that seems like an inordinate amount of time to you, Medium writer Charlotte Grysolle dug up 15 actionable tricks from the conversation. If you’re interested in the broader conversation about body hacking and self-improvement, her article is well worth a read in full.
But one idea caught my eye, both for its simplicity and its usefulness. Huberman calls it the “psychological gasp” and promises that it will allow you to hijack your body’s stress response and immediately turn off that panicky feeling of mounting stress that we all fear.
The trick is based on a simple fact of anatomy. When you inhale, your diaphragm and other muscles move in such a way that the chest expands, leaving a little more room for your heart. In response, your heart also expands slightly, causing the blood in it to slow down a bit.
“Neurons in the heart pay attention to the speed of blood flow, so they signal to the brain that the blood is moving slower to the heart. The brain sends a signal back to speed up the heart. So if your breaths are longer than your exhale, you accelerate your heart,” explains Grysolle.
The opposite happens when you exhale. Everything pulls together, 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 to pound. That means, “If you want to calm down quickly, make your exhale longer and more forceful than your inhale,” Grysolle concludes.
How to use the ‘psychological sigh’
How exactly do you achieve that? You use the “psychological sigh,” a big phrase for a simple change in your breathing rhythms. It looks like this:
Two short breaths through the nose
One long exhale 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-reducing effects of the breathing pattern. You can read more about this slightly more comprehensive technique here, but both stress-reducing tricks are based on the same principle: exhaling longer and breathing slower act like a kill switch for your stress response.
So the next time your heart pounds for a big presentation, an important pitch, or a high-stakes meeting, think of Huberman’s psychological sigh and take back control of your stress response. It’s as simple as getting your breathing under control.