By Jimmy Warden
Our world is constantly buzzing. Between text messages, FaceTimes, phone calls, Zoom calls, emails, social media notifications, YouTube videos, and tv shows; there is so much stimulation right at our fingertips. Not to mention, the ever prevalent stimulation that we receive from the actual environments that we are in each day. From the roads we drive, the people at our work, the to-do lists we need to complete, and anything in between, there is always something that captures our attention. Eventually, we run out of energy, and are looking for a way to recharge our personal batteries. There are also many times during our day when the stimulation becomes so overwhelming that we feel we’re caught in an adrenaline loop and we can’t escape the chaos. If only we could have some ways to revamp our energy naturally without the use of stimulants like caffeine. If only there was a way that we could find some calm amidst the chaos that we face everyday. The good news is, there is a way that we can increase alertness when we need to, and there is a way to increase calmness when we need to. All we need to do, is breath.
What is intentional breathing?
Intentional breathing is a term that I thought of after learning about how controlled breathing can help us alter a couple of our physical states. Specifically, alertness and calmness. Our levels of alertness and calmness fluctuate tremendously throughout the day, but this is often due to the environment that we are in. When the environment around us increases our heart rate and increases our attention, we are often very alert of where we are and what decisions need to be made. When the environment around us decreases our heart rate and allows our attention to relax, we are often in a state of calmness that allows us to be more present with the environment or think through any decisions that need to be made. These varying states can be a challenge because of a paradox. We often need a little bit more calm in those moments where we can feel our heart beat and have laser beam focus. We often need a little more alertness in those moments that we are feeling a bit more tranquil.
As far as the technique goes, there are two variations of intentional breathing that I learned about, through Dr. Andrew Huberman, Neurobiologist at Stanford University. Huberman states that if we want to lower our levels of arousal and become more calm, we need to intentionally make our exhales longer than our inhales. This will help lower our current heart rate and slow down our breathing. In order to increase our levels of arousal and become more alert, we need to make our inhales longer than our exhales. This will help increase our heart rate and speed up our breathing a bit.
At the level of our biology, each time we exhale, the diaphragm moves up, which creates less space in our thoracic cavity and stomach. This allows our heart to contract, allow blood flow to increase, and lower our heart heart. As for an inhale, our diaphragm moves down, which creates more space in our thoracic cavity and stomach, which then allows our heart to expand, blood flow to slow, which increases our heart rate. There are specific neurons called the sinoatrial node which send a signal to the brain when we inhale or exhale to start increasing or decreasing the speed of blood flow to the heart. That message is what’s responsible for manipulating our heart rate.
Huberman uses a really great analogy to describe what breathing does to our heart rate. He states that an inhale is like putting our foot on the gas pedal in a car, so it speeds up our heart rate. As for an exhale, that’s like taking our foot off of the accelerator to naturally let our heart beat to come back to a more settled rate.
How can intentional breathing be applied?
The best part about intentional breathing is that it can be applied anytime, anywhere, depending on the state that we want to be in. If we are in an intense conversation and we can feel our heart rate increase, and we want to become more calm, we can take a short breath in, and a long breath out. After repeating the pattern several times, we’ll more than likely be able to decrease our heart rate, and feel less jittery. However, if we’re feeling some afternoon fatigue settling in, rather than reaching for more caffeine, or taking a nap at work, we can take several long breaths in through our nose or mouth, and follow it with short breaths out. It could almost be thought of as a controlled hyperventilation.
Before we begin an intentional breathing session, we must become aware that we are either too alert or too relaxed. That way we can make a decision about what type of breath work we should do. It is also important to trust our physiology, so that it can take its course and bring us to the state that we are looking for. If doubts of whether the breathing exercises will work leak into our process, it will make it more difficult to drop into the physical state we want to be in. The last part of the process is practice. Nothing will get better from just reading about these techniques, so we should try to think about the times of our day that we are overstressed, and need some more calm, as well as when we might be too tranquil, and need some alertness. Once we recognize those times, we can anticipate when we’ll be in one of those states, and respond appropriately, with the proper breathing technique. That’s when our practice will come in handy.
So let’s give these techniques a try. Let’s give ourselves the best opportunities to be in the physical states of mind and body that are needed during times of focus and during times of rest. We have a lot more power over our physiology than we give ourselves credit for, so let’s take advantage of that with intentional breathing. It will be worth everyone’s while.