Breathing and its underestimated functions
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This article was written by Flow Lab’s Head of Content and MSc. psychologist Eva Siem. She studied at the University of Groningen (NL) and is specialized in the area of performance and motivational psychology. In her articles, she combines findings from psychological research with practical tips from her experience as mental fitness coach and workshop trainer.
How long do you think the human body can survive without food?
About 10 days.
How long can it survive without water?
About five days.
Okay, and how long is it able to survive without oxygen?
That’s right, just a few minutes.
Breathing: the most underestimated human skill
Rationally speaking, we already know how important oxygen is for our survival. But breathing happens so automatically that we rarely pay much attention to it.
However, our breath does not just ensure that we live, it also impacts how we live.
In this series of articles on breathing, you can find out why it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at your breathing habits and which breathing exercises help you to stay calm, relaxed and productive.
Breathing is an underestimated process. As a reflex essential for survival, it takes place without you having to think about it. But let’s get straight to the facts.
Take-Home Message #1: Breathing is the only reflex that you can consciously control.
Let’s take a closer look why this is so important …
How we unlearned to breathe properly
Usually, an adult person breathes around 12-15 times per minute at rest, circulating about 2.5 litres of air through the body for each deep breath.
The respiratory center regulates the breathing rate and is located in the brain stem. One task of the respiratory center is to control the carbon dioxide (CO2) content in the blood. If it is too high, you automatically breathe faster to release excess CO2 into the environment. If it is too low, the opposite happens and you breathe more slowly. That is at least the theory …
But for many reasons we often breathe shallow and irregularly. This may be due to the constant stress of everyday life, an unintentional habit that has developed over time. Instead of 2.5 litres, we only really inhale an average of 0.5 litres of air per breath. As a result, only one in twenty of our 750 million alveoli is used, which means that much less oxygen gets into the bloodstream! The internal organs and the brain are undersupplied and can no longer perform at their optimum level. No surprise, that without sufficient oxygen it is difficult to effectively reach peak performance and highly-focused flow states…
This is how breathing affects your energy level
But the good news is: You can form new habits! By using certain breathing techniques, you can get enough oxygen and adjust your energy level to your current challenge: for an energy kick in the afternoon or for more calm and relaxation in the midst of the daily rush.
Through specific breathing techniques you regulate your autonomic nervous system, which is made up of two antagonists: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The two are well coordinated and control the functioning of different organs, such as the heart, digestion, perspiration and … breathing!
Take-Home Message #2: Through breathing you can regulate the autonomic nervous system to influence your energy levels and oxygen levels in your body and make flow more likely.
For the curious ones, here come the details:
The Activation Mode
The sympathetic nervous system is the activating system in your body. Its so-called ganglia, i.e. accumulations of nerve cells, are located directly at the spinal cord. These ganglia in turn have their fibres connected to the muscles, the heart and, for example, the sweat or salivary glands. Under activation or stress, the sympathetic nervous system works at full speed and can thus quickly cause muscle tension, sweat production and an accelerated heartbeat – it causes the well-known “fight-flight-or-freeze” effect. So if you have ever wondered who is responsible for your sweaty, shaky hands during an important presentation – here is your answer. For our ancestors, this lightning-fast reaction was essential for survival, e.g. to flee from predators or to summon up the energy to fight off attackers. By a long inhalation, for instance, you activate the sympathetic nervous system. So a yawn – a long inhale and a short exhale – can be a well intentioned push from your body on days when you seem to mutate into a couch potato and can hardly get off your butt.
The Relaxation Mode
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, works entirely in the name of relaxation and provides the “rest-and-digest” effect. Its tasks include slowing down the pulse again, lowering blood pressure, stimulating digestion and slowing down the breathing rate. For those days when you can’t keep up, because your email inbox is overflowing, unfinished tasks are piling up on your desk, your calendar is jam-packed with appointments, and the delayed bus seems to tip you over the edge, you can use your breathing to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This will help you relax both your body and mind! One “deep breath” is already a great start!
Breathwork for sustainable performance and flow
Numerous studies have shown that the time for a few conscious breaths is well invested. Breathing exercises reduce your cortisol level and thus also your stress. They can even help reduce depressive symptoms and slow down the activity of the amygdala, so that anxiety states decrease. What’s more, you can use deep breaths to promote positive emotions and lower your blood pressure. Even the risk of burnout is reduced by breathing slowly and deeply.
Take-Home Message #3: Research shows the many benefits of breathing exercises - in short: less stress, more well-being!
You will notice how an awareness for your breathing also increases your productivity. As you may already know, for flow you need to find the sweet spot between activation and relaxation – that is both sympathetic as well as parasympathetic interaction. Depending on how high your energy level already is due to your current challenge, you can adjust it with your breathing to find your optimal state of functioning. In the following articles of this series you will learn proven breathing techniques that will help you find this balance and thus experience flow.