Chronic stress affects three quarters of humanity, and there are many effective techniques to mitigate it, from meditation to exercise. But these activities force us to stop what we’re doing, and it may not be possible to say in the middle of a difficult meeting at work that we need ten minutes to do push-ups. Still, there is something we can always do: breathe.
HRV, the trick of professional athletes that you can use too
We have seen it many times in the movies, and also in real life. When someone loses their cool, another person says “take a deep breath.” If you have a difficult presentation to give at work, you might take a deep breath before you start, and you might also take a deep breath before a difficult conversation with your partner. All these situations have the same principle in common: changing our breath changes our state of mind.
There is also no doubt that our mood affects our breathing. When we perceive a threat, be it real or imagined, be it a mad dog chasing us or a delivery date, a part of our brain called the amygdala sends signals to make our heart race, blood pressure rise, and breathing quicken. . This occurs in a certain way: strong inhalations and short exhalations, in an attempt to oxygenate the brain and muscles as much as possible to face danger.
What science has been able to verify in recent years is something we know. Intuitively: this is a two-way street. If we consciously change the way we breathe, we can change the state of our brain. This is where the physiological sigh comes in.
The science of the physiological sigh
If when we are upset our body is trying to get more oxygen from breathing, the opposite mechanism also works. Paradoxically, if we give a little less oxygen to our brain, our brain calms down. Under normal conditions, the nervous system detects this reduction in oxygen as an increase in the concentration of CO2 in the blood. CO2 is an alarm signal indicating that we need to breathe faster. But if we breathe slowly, we suppress this alarm signal. We can imagine our brain having this internal dialogue: “if there is less oxygen in circulation, it must be that we do not need it, so the danger has passed”.
There are various techniques for inducing this state, and they are all based on the principle of exhaling more air than is inhaled. The most effective seems to be the so-called physiological sigh, which follows this sequence:
- Take an inhalation through the nose.
- Take a second shorter inhalation.
- Immediately after exhaling long through the mouth.
- Breathe in this way for a few minutes.
The exhalation can be accompanied by a vocalization, such as “ahhhh”, if circumstances permit. Interestingly, this is the rhythm of breathing of a person who is sobbingwhich appears naturally to control their discomfort, and has also been detected spontaneously in claustrophobic people trying to calm down, as well as during sleep.
Another mechanism by which this type of breathing calms us down is that, even if we breathe fewer times per minute, it increases the efficiency of the lungs. Our lungs are made up of many small air sacs, the alveoli. When we are stressed, the rate of respiration and pressure increase, and this causes some alveoli to squash. Physiological sighs, with double inspiration, cause these alveoli to inflate again.
One of the popularizers of this method of managing stress is the neurologist Andrew Huberman, from Stanford, who together with the psychiatrist David Spiegel are studying the effects of different types of breathing in the mental state of people, including the physiological sigh.
Cyclic physiological sighing (repeating the exercise several times) has been used successfully to improve oxygenation in patients suffering from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). In patients. A similar technique called slow deep loaded breathing improves blood pressure, lung capacity, and exercise endurance. in older people with hypertension.
In healthy people was previously known that slow, deep breathing improved lung capacity, heart rate variability (a measure of our ability to handle stress), circulation, and the tone of the vagus nerve, which regulates relaxation. Using this technique on a regular basis is related to better health and greater longevity.
Other experiments have verified that this type of respiration change brain waves, producing more alpha-type frequencies, which are associated with an alert but relaxed state, as in meditation. In addition, studies this form of breathing has even better effects in the elderly than in young people, which suggests its applications in cases of chronic diseases associated with age.
One of the most insidious components of stress is the feeling of loss of control, that what happens to us is beyond our control. The physiological sigh is a way to regain that control over ourselves and, in the process, obtain numerous benefits, including less fatigue, better sleep and greater ability to concentrate.
What is all this based on?