Almost everyone has been in a situation in which they were either instructed by someone to take a deep breath or they themselves told someone to take one. Odds are in that situation that the person whose breath was the subject was experiencing a significant amount of stress. Breathing is one of the simplest and most efficient strategies to combat the cognitive, emotional, and physiological consequences of stress, but as simple as it is, most people do not breathe optimally at baseline.. When stress is added it becomes even harder. This post will explore strategies to optimize your breathing when you need it most.
To get an idea of how you breathe under stress, lets try an experiment. We will be completing a burpee breathing ladder. To do this you will perform 1 burpee and then upon standing take one breath. Once completed you will immediately perform two burpees followed by two breaths. After the second breath you will immediately perform three more burpees and take three more breaths. This cycle will continue until seven burpees and seven breaths are completed.
Now that you have finished this exercise I have two questions for you. The first is, as the exercise became more difficult where did the air enter your body? Secondly where did the air go? Your chest? Your stomach? Most people answer that as the exercise becomes more difficult and their heart rate increases they compensate by breathing in through their mouth and fill their chest with air. Both of these strategies make your breathing less efficient and can hinder your performance.
To understand this is the case we need to touch on the science of breathing and how it impacts the parasympathetic and sympathetic portions of your autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is commonly associated with resting and digesting. Its functions have a calming influence and lower heart and blood pressure while promoting digestion. The parasympathetic is busiest during rest and sleeping. The sympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as the fight or flight response. It is your body's evolutionary defense mechanism against threats. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated there is an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate. It is this system that we are trying to override when we take a deep breath to remain calm under pressure.
The easiest way to activate the parasympathetic response is to utilize diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is an umbrella shaped muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities. It acts like a large inner piston that regulates internal pressure and ventilates the lungs. Running through the diaphragm is the longest of the cranial nerves, the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects among other parts the big three the brain, heart, and lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing activates the vagus nerve which responds by creating a parasympathetic response that reaches the big three. By breathing diaphragmatically we can influence not only our physiology, but our emotions and thoughts as well.
To learn diaphragmatic breathing lie down on the floor with your heels on a chair and your legs forming a 90 degree angle. Place your hands on your stomach and breathe in and out. Your hand should be moving up and away from the floor on an inhale and down towards the floor on an exhale. Cadence is also important and can be practiced here. A simple four in, four out pace works for most. When this becomes easy sit in a chair with one hand on your chest and another on your stomach. Again breathe in and out trying to make your bottom hand move while your top hand remains still.
It is much easier to breathe correctly when one is lying or sitting down then it is when trying to make a birdie put or a game tying foul shot. A great way to practice this technique is the breathing burpee ladder mentioned above. This time instead of taking traditional breaths substitute diaphragmatic breaths at a four in four out cadence. It is much harder then most people expect due to an over reliance on poor breathing mechanics. The other big takeaway of the exercise is that athletes can gain an awareness of the skill of respiratory rate control and how it impacts their physiology. As the exercise progresses to five or six burpees it becomes difficult to match the cadence and most athletes will switch to a shorter rate to allow for the proper intake of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide. It should be pointed out that under stress a persons breathing may be at a one in to one out ratio and one of the best ways to regain control is to gradually extend our breath cycle until we can get to two in two out using diaphragmatic breathing, with the ultimate goal being to return to a four in four out cadence.
Breathing is an often overlooked performance enhancement strategy that can have a huge impact on your ability to perform under pressure.