It seems so counterintuitive to discuss and focus on how to breathe correctly. We do it every moment of every day of our lives. Yet what I’ve come to realize from both a physiological perspective and an actual practice, is that taking control of my breath is one of the most profound practices I have access to.
Ironically for the majority of my 16-year career as an Olympic-level performance coach, I was completely unaware of the power of breath. For me, I came to realize the power of breath from a place of grief.
So how do we take back control when we are overcome with feeling stressed? Your greatest superpower is already within you – YOUR BREATH! But our body breathes on autopilot—so why worry about how to inhale and exhale properly?
Breath control can calm anxiety, relieve stress, sharpen your focus, send you to sleep, or send you into an array of deep and healing non-ordinary states.
Scientific research is showing that mindful breathing—paying attention to your breath and learning how to manipulate it—is one of the most effective ways to lower everyday stress levels and improve a variety of health factors ranging from mood to metabolism.
In this article we are going to explore how to breathe correctly by understanding:
- Whether you are breathing correctly right now
- Why proper breathing is important
- The role of CO2
- Nasal Vs Mouth Breathing
- And how to test your CO2 tolerance
Are you breathing properly right now?
Most people have a lot to learn and improve upon when it comes to how to breathe correctly, the most basic of our physiological functions.
We tend to huff at a fairly quick clip most of the time—anywhere from 14 to 20 breaths per minute is the standard, which is about three times faster than the 5 or 6 breaths per minute proven to help you feel your best.
What we want to be doing is breathing at rest using our diaphragm. Not only will our belly rise on inhaling and fall on exhale, but we will expand 360 degrees around our waist.
Imagine an inhale of breath is like filling a glass of water. The breath should fill the bottom of our lungs first in all directions, and then our chest should rise at the end. Our breath in should feel relaxed, not stiff and then a relaxed exhale.
Sounds easy? Give it a go now…
For most, it actually isn’t that easy to start with – and that’s ok. True freedom is a mind that remains curious and can see the beauty in any experience. Our breath is the direct link to a calm, clear mind and body.
The 3 subtle changes we coach to all beginners are:
1. Breath through your nose.
2. Soften your vision (when we are stressed we have a narrow focus – so close your eyes or soften use your peripheral view).
3. Double your exhale to your inhale (if you breathe in for 3 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds).
Breathing through the nose helps bring on the parasympathetic response (body switches into rest mode). When life is stressful, and you note that you are mouth breathing, try switching to nasal breathing and inhaling slowly and deeply.
By consciously controlling how we breathe, we can self-regulate and manage our internal state positively to initiate our best response when we encounter challenges, disagreements, and stressors.
How to breathe correctly – 3 Main Pointers
1. Breathe slowly
2. Breathe through your nose
3. Breathe fully and from your belly
Taking Control of Your Breath- Why it’s important
We are not limited to our stress fight, flight, or freeze responses. We can choose to interact with our autonomic nervous system which is where the breath comes in.
By consciously controlling how we breathe, we can self-regulate and manage our internal state positively to initiate our best response when we encounter challenges, disagreements, and stressors. Furthermore, all chemistry in our body is regulated through how we breathe.
Oxygen is the most vital gas we have. Manipulating its use is done via the removal of or increase of carbon dioxide. This has a direct impact on our physiology and our state of mind. Understanding the principles here allows us to respond to situations in life, rather than being hijacked by physiology.
The Incredible Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Carbon dioxide is an acid that is responsible for kicking oxygen off the red blood cell so that it is actually usable. If we have limited carbon dioxide in an environment where we don’t need large amounts of oxygen, such as breathing and puffing through our mouth at a time of rest and not doing anything stressful, our bodies are in more of a sympathetic response.
If you find yourself during the day gasping for air without relief, what you’re responding to may actually be your body’s decreased tolerance to carbon dioxide, rather than a need for more oxygen.
It is a common misconception that breathing in a larger volume of air increases the oxygenation of the blood. It would be like pouring more water into a glass that is already filled to the brim.
Increasing oxygen in our body is not the answer, but improved delivery of oxygen is!
There are many reactions at play that influence the pH of the blood. One of these is the chemical relationship between oxygen and carbon dioxide which is explained by The Bohr Effect. It states that increased levels of CO2 lead to increased release of O2 by hemoglobin.
Nose Breathing vs Mouth Breathing
Breathing through our mouths (over breathing) is the quickest way to remove that essential CO2.
Breathing through the nose serves as a filter for cleaning and warming the air as it enters your body. It offers greater resistance, forcing better use of our diaphragm and allowing for less CO2 offload through exhalation.
In addition, breathing through the nose stimulates an area of our nasal sinuses that deliver Nitric Oxide (NO), which is not activated through mouth breathing. Nitric Oxide is a vasodilator, and increases the transportation of the blood, thereby acting as an airborne messenger.
Nasal breathing can profoundly improve our awareness.— Brian Mackenzie
The critical thing we need to live is oxygen, we last mere minutes without it. Yet most of us are walking around in a chronic state of lack of oxygen due to mouth breathing. We’ve failed to grasp lifestyle choices. We have huge industries in nutrition, exercise, biohacking, etc, yet the foundation on which all of this sits is breath control.
Over breathing stimulates our sympathetic response. So purely by breathing incorrectly, we are living in survival mode. In a heightened state — commuter rage, public speaking, interviews, family confrontation… we revert to holding our breath, which is a stress response.
If we’re walking around with our mouths open, it’s a clear sign we’re in a sympathetic state. That means that we can’t learn, utilize our creativity or respond from a place of context.
4 Nasal Breathing Benefits
1. Emotional state — Nasal breathing helps bring on the parasympathetic response. (When life is stressful, and you note that you are mouth breathing, try switching to nasal breathing and inhaling slowly and deeply.)
2. Exercise performance — At first, high-intensity exercise may feel more difficult with nasal breathing. The body needs to adapt to a different approach to the respiratory process, and if it is used for hyperventilation during exercise, nasal breathing may feel a bit slow at first. Things will shift. Be patient.
3. Exercise recovery — Switch to nasal breath in between sets or during rest. Because nasal breathing is more efficient, recovery should be smoother.
4. Immune system — Nasal breathing is a major defence against airborne pathogens. The mouth has no defence system. You may experience improvements in overall breathing and decreasing allergies or colds.
Test Your CO2 Tolerance
The CO2 Tolerance Test is a gateway to understanding our physiology. Developed through extensive trials and applications, including in conjunction with Stanford University’s Huberman Lab, this test has been proven to be a powerful indicator of a variety of physiological mechanisms and gives strong indicators of anxiety levels and even breath mechanics to some degree. C02 Tolerance is a great indicator of stress and inflammation.
Follow the directions below to find your current CO2 Tolerance. It’s recommended you test every 2–3 weeks to measure your progress and calibrate your personal protocol to your current state.
Over time your CO2 tolerance and your breath practice, in general, can serve as powerful indicators of reactivity to stressors and how your physiology is dealing with those stressors.
How To Test
1. Find a stopwatch (on most phones)
2. All breaths are through your nose only
3. Take 3–5 deep normal nasal breaths
4. Relax for 10 seconds, and continue breathing through your nose
5. Take 1 more full nasal inhale, and when you start to nasal exhale, start your timer
6. Exhale through your nose as slowly as you can, for as long as you can
7. Don’t hold your breath or swallow. If that happens, stop your timer
8. When you have no air left to exhale, stop your timer
How Do You Score?
- 60–80 seconds –> You’re Doing Well. Reflects a healthy pulmonary system, and relatively low arousal.
- 40–60 seconds –> Good. This range generally improves quickly with a focus on CO2 tolerance training.
- 20–40 seconds –> Average. Moderate to high arousal state. Breathing mechanics need improvement.
- <20 seconds –> Not So Good. Very high arousal and stress sensitivity. The mechanical restriction is possible. Poor pulmonary capacity.
The Takeaway Message
Breathing is a part of our autonomic functions. Its home is in the reptilian brain, the oldest part of the brain that is purely reactive. It is also something we can consciously control with profound results.
Here is the fun part, controlling that reactionary function retrains how we are programmed to respond. This is when what we used to feel, becomes something entirely different; complete control.
With areas in the brain dedicated to breathing (the reactive reptilian brain) and sensors in close proximity to the brain that detect carbon dioxide (along with pressure), our breath is literally a first responder to a threat. Everything works for the brain. Because of this, the signals closest to the brain are first responders to it all.
So CO2 tolerance is a great measure of our state of physiology. Improve your CO2 tolerance, and you’ll improve your resiliency to stress.
For more on breathwork
Check out our breathwork resources: