Jedi Mind Tricks — Using Breathing to Influence Your Nervous System

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

It’s 2 PM. You’re cranking on an important document that the client is, quite impatiently, waiting to receive.

Despite a good night sleep and a healthy lunch, you’re feeling the lurch of the afternoon arrive. Your eyes are dropping, and your focus is fading. You are improbably hungry given that you finished eating lunch less than an hour ago. Even your eyes feel tired.

You give yourself a pep talk.

“Come on, Steve. Grind through this for two more hours, and then you can clean up your emails and go home.”

This notion is mostly true. But you also know that you’re trying to get to the gym by six so that you can catch the game with your friends by 8. You also need to drop off your dry cleaning. Did you remember to buy toilet paper? Did you book my flights for my trip next month?

Suddenly, you’re 10,000 miles away from the urgent file on your computer screen. You snap back to attention, shake your self, and recommit.

And then the process repeats.

Why does this happen?

You, my dear friend, are falling victim to your biology. Let me explain.

In its infinite wisdom, your body evolved to put a large number of your essential systems on autopilot. These systems include digestion, breathing, and keeping your heart beating consistently.

These systems make up your autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system has two states: sympathetic, and parasympathetic.

You’re probably familiar with the sympathetic nervous system — it is better known as your “fight or flight” system.

In times of stress, which can be exercise-induced stress, or work stress, or mental stress, or anxiety, your body will activate the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system will downshift some of these necessary processes to prioritize the bodily functions that would help you escape a predator.

Evolution doesn’t update as often as the iPhone, unfortunately.

What does this mean, practically?

When your sympathetic system is activated, the following changes happen:
-Your pupils dilate
-Your digestion slows
-Your liver releases glucose for a quick surge of energy
-Your breathing rate increases
-Your heart rate increases

If you were, indeed, running away from a tiger, all of these changes to your physiology would be a good thing. However, when you’re sitting at your desk trying to digest your lunch and get some work done, this is entirely counterproductive.

And the worst part? These sympathetic responses are cyclical — their very existence encourages the body to continue using them.

When your liver releases glucose and your body uses it up, your body will naturally crave more glucose. This glucose drain is where your afternoon cookie craving emanates.

When your rate of breathing increases, you get less oxygen per breath, and your body will respond by encouraging you to breathe even faster.

And my personal favorite: the sympathetic nervous system will relentlessly signal you to use the bathroom to empty your bladder.

When you pee, and the have to pee, like, eight seconds later? That’s your body trying to clear you out so that you can run faster.

Before a marathon, all of these responses would be tremendously helpful. At your desk, however, not so much.

Thankfully, the body has a built-in switch to help you modulate between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

It’s your breathing.

Breathing is a vital system for every necessary function of the body. As such, it is a leading indicator to your brain of how to prioritize its other operations. When your breathing is controlled and relaxed, it will trigger your mind to enter a parasympathetic state, which is also known as the “rest and digest” state.

In a parasympathetic state, here is what happens:
-Your rate of breathing and heart rate slow, which improves both the amount of oxygen absorbed with each breath, as well as the extent to which it diffuses throughout the body.
-Your liver produces bile, rather than glucose, which aids in the digestion of fat. Digesting fat provides a more extended, more sustainable source of energy compared to burning glucose.
-Your bladder takes back control, so you don’t have to be pee constantly and can drink enough fluids comfortably!

Said differently, all of the biological effects conspiring to make your afternoon uncomfortable and unproductive can reverse!

So, the million dollar question: how do you use breathing to inspire a parasympathetic response?

It’s quite easy, and there are many ways to do this. I will offer three.

  1. ) 4–7–8 Breathing. This method is popular among many health experts and meditation gurus because not only will it help you move to a parasympathetic state, but the odd numerical combination is an excellent distraction from whatever is messing with your mind! The concept is simple: Inhale for four breaths, hold your breath for seven seconds, exhale for eight seconds.
  2. Slow, Circular Breathing. There is a specific rate for each person that will pull your internal systems into alignment and help bring you back to a parasympathetic state. It is different for every person, but as a starting point, start with six breaths per minute. When you breathe, inhale for five seconds, and then immediately exhale for five seconds. Repeat. If you are a notably tall or muscular person, your number is likely to be less than six breaths per minute, so add time to each side of the inspiration.
  3. Downshift Apnea. This phrasing is a fancy way of saying hold your breath for short periods of time. Breathe in for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and then hold your breath for 10–15 seconds. Without gasping or immediately returning to a normal breathing pattern, complete these exercise 5–10 times.

Regardless of your method, you should focus on two things while breathing to get the most out of the activity. First, breathe in and out through your nose. Have you ever tried breathing through your nose when sprinting? It is nearly impossible — your body needs too much oxygen and needs to clear too much CO2 to use your nasal passage. Guess what that means? Nasal breathing helps trigger your brain to enter a parasympathetic state!

Second, focus on using your diaphragm. Breathing this way is also known as belly breathing. A good mental trick is to think about breathing horizontally, moving your belly in and out, rather than vertically by lifting and lowering your chest. The diaphragm regulates the barometric pressure in your arteries, which is another major signal carrier to the brain regarding sympathetic v. parasympathetic nervous system.

You are most powerful when you understand how to control your body and mind and orient them toward doing what you need and want them to do. We spend a frighteningly large amount of time at the mercy of our biological systems because we do not regulate them effectively.

Next time that you find yourself with prime seating on the struggle bus give this a try. If nothing else, it will create a few minutes to take a breather (lolz) and regroup before diving into that work. It may even help you make a better decision, like going for a walk or taking a quick nap rather than reaching for your ninth espresso of the day.

If you end up trying this, let me know how it goes! Feel free to leave a comment below or find me on facebook.