Quit Waiting to Exhale

I want to talk to you about BREATH. Breathing. You know, that thing that keeps air moving in and out of your lungs so you can live? Kind of an essential function, something we take for granted. And yet – breathing can be our superpower if we let it!

Did you know there are sensors in your brain that register the amount of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream? Your brain then uses that info to adjust how hard you’re breathing. When we aren’t exhaling fully, we’re not releasing all of the carbon dioxide from our bodies, and our brain starts to send stress signals to help us breathe harder and intake more oxygen. Basically, by not paying a *little* closer attention to our breath, we’re making our bodies work harder and activating an unnecessary stress response.

Now, you might be thinking: Come on, Nicole. I’ve been breathing my whole life. I’m an expert at it! I don’t need any more work in this area. In fact, it’s one of the things I’m actually already good at! I don’t blame you for thinking that way. I used to think that way. But over the last year or so, I’ve started to learn more about how breath affects not just our physical bodies but our emotional and mental capacity as well. There are over 150 neurons in our brains that also spy on how we’re breathing. Too fast or too shallow? Yikes! Time to send that stress response. Slow and even? Ahhhh… yep, stay relaxed and alert.

When we are breathing fully – deep exhales and deep, even inhales – our bodies stay relaxed but remain fully alert. Blood flow to our frontal lobe is maintained, ensuring that we have optimal conditions for our highest cognition.

So if you are facing a big decision or a challenging project, exhale first. Then take some slow, even, deep breaths. As your heart rate slows, your blood becomes richly oxygenated, and blood flow is fully restored to your brain, you’ll have more capacity to tackle what’s in front of you.

If you’re like me, I need a little help staying focused when I’m deep breathing. My mind tends to run away from me, and about halfway through my first exhale, I’m already churning back over my to-do list, the forgotten grocery item, and that birthday card I still need to send. A little structure goes a long way. If that is helpful for you, try this super simple technique I use frequently to help me when I need to breathe better: Box Breathing.

Box breathing is an easy breath using four counts of four – hence the term “box” breathing. You can do it with your eyes open, when you’re around other people, or even when you’re driving. First, exhale all the air in your lungs (adios, CO2!). Start by taking a deep inhale for a count of four. Next, you’ll hold that breath for a count of four before exhaling slowly to a count of four. Finally, before you take that next inhale, just pause for a count of four.

It’s that easy! And it’s also that powerful.

- Nicole



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