There are certain functions that our body does automatically, but are also still in our control (like blinking), and breathing is another of those things. We take anywhere between 20,000 to 23,000 breaths every day, but how many of us use breathing to gain an advantage when things are stressful?

Outside of stress, breathing is the primary factor influencing our heart rate. When stressed, our breathing moves from our diaphragm to our chest, becoming fast, shallow and activating the sympathetic nervous system which is used in anxiety and anger. It also creates tension in muscles in the area.

Unfortunately, the more stressed we are becoming in our lives, the more that chest breathing has become our default and automated method of breathing.

So, how can we use breathing to our advantage?

Tip: Slow your breathing rate and extend your exhale

Because there is a coherent relationship between our breathing and our heart rate, when stressed, we can bring heart rate down by taking control of our breathing and slowing it down. When we take long, slow breaths it triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body's safety system used in rest and recovery, so extending our exhale triggers a quicker recovery and brings our heart rate down quicker.

When stressed or anxious, the best way to find calm is to simply focus on your breathing. 

Take the 5 Breath Challenge to practice: Find a few minutes to practice focusing on your breathing with the aim of relentlessly following only your breathing for five breaths. Remember to slow your inhale and extend your exhale, and just explore how it feels to settle your mind. When your mind wanders or you get distracted (as it does for everyone), simply bring your focus back to your breathing. The practice is to notice when our focus shifts away from present, and improves our ability to bring our focus back.

Athletes have long realised that breathing is the master skill that allows them to stay at their best amid distraction. Once you invest in breathing practice by trying a simple activity like the 5 Breath Challenge, you realise that it’s always available and learn to use it to your advantage prior to any stressful moment like speaking in public, heading into a job interview or in a moment of overwhelm during a pandemic.

Essendon mental skills coach David Reid will be a special guest on Working Through It this week. Head to from 4pm AEST on Wednesday to listen live to the podcast.


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