Tests, deadlines, and public speaking are among the things people dread the most. Shortness of breath, sweaty palms, and shaky limbs can overcome our body, leading us to an anxiety attack. But, a simple breathing technique can allow us to practice the mantra “mind over matter” to calm our nerves in seconds.
In Big Think’s latest video, “Mind Hack: Combat Anxiety with This Breathing Technique,” Jane McGonigal, author of the book SuperBetter, explains while most of us are familiar with the technique of deep inhales to relax, “power breath” can be a more effective exercise to achieve a cool, calm, and collected state of mind.
[T]he way you do it is that you exhale for twice as long as you inhale. So you might inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight,” says McGonigal in the video.
For example, if we’re really worked up, she suggests we inhale for two and out for four when we get started, and then slow it down more as we go. We can gradually inhale for eight and exhale for 16 once we become comfortable breathing this way.
So, how exactly does this technique work?
The power of one breath
Power breath is very effective in calming our nerves because it triggers a switch in our body’s nervous system from the sympathetic nervous system — which activates the fight-or-flight response — to parasympathetic — the rest-and-digest system that slows down heart rate and relaxes the muscles. If we’re in a fight-or-flight state, and we don’t want to feel this way, switching back and forth from inhaling for four, exhaling for eight can lead us to a state of rest-and-digest.
This breathing exercise is also believed to enhance the “calm-and-collected” state which has been used effectively by people to stop a panic attack, reduce migraine symptoms, and for dealing with muscle spasms or muscle cramps.
Power breath allows our body to switch into a calm-connected or rest-and-digest state because when we’re naturally calm and naturally resting, we do not think about our breath, that is the breathing pattern the body adopts, according to Jane. So, if we’re able to “trick” the mind and body into thinking we’re calm and connected, we begin to breathe the way we would be breathing if we were naturally in a state of calm and connection.
Simply taking the time to inhale and exhale, and then assess the situation calmly, has the power to alleviate our anxiety in a matter of seconds.