Stress can be a useful feature of life, if it’s constructive. But grinding, chronic stress is the early warning system for a mental and emotional burnout that will take weeks, possibly months to recover from. And the constantly elevated cortisol levels will already be killing your performance and exercise gains, and degrading your quality of life. Fortunately, there’s a free, immediate and scientifically proven remedy to reset your stress response from being stuck to ‘always on’: breathwork.
I reached out to breathwork expert Jamie Clements who teaches classes at The Breath Space and is a LevelOut CBD ambassador, for some practical, stress-beating biohacks that you can try, right now…
1. Understand What You’re Dealing With If you want to get straight to the biohacks, then go straight to number 2, but if you want to understand how stress and breathing are so closely related, then Clements has an explanation: “Our body's stress response is governed by the Sympathetic branch of our Autonomic Nervous System, otherwise known as the fight/flight response, which is characterized (from a breathing perspective) by short, shallow, faster breathing.”
The good news is that, through our breath, we have a direct line into our Autonomic Nervous System, which allows us to have a conscious influence over our stress response. This is where the biohack part comes because breathing is the only involuntary physiological process we can take control off. “There are a number of simple ways we can manage stress with our breath, that all focus on stimulating our vagus nerve to active our Parasympathetic response, AKA rest and digest mode,” Clements tells me.
Nasal breathing releases nitric oxide into our system, improving circulation and lower blood pressure, while it filters and humidifies air entering our lungs
2. Use Your Nose Running around all day stressed out and with an elevated heart rate often requires hauling air in through the mouth, like a fish out of water. “But nasal breathing naturally slows the breath,” Clements says. “This makes us more relaxed, and nasal breathing also filters and humidifies the air entering the lungs, as well as releasing nitric oxide into our system, which can improve circulation and lower blood pressure.” That’s a pretty powerful biohack already!
3. Take Deep Breaths Ironically, the cheesiest advice in a crisis – to ‘take deep breaths’ – turns out to be 100% helpful. But you have to do it right, says Clements, and stop thinking about quantity: “Taking a deep breath isn't about taking a big breath. You want to focus on breathing slowly and gently into your belly, using your diaphragm. This stimulates the Parasympathetic – AKA ‘rest and digest’ – response.”
Once again, using your nose to inhale will slow the rate of your breath, but paradoxically make it easier to properly fill your lungs, by breathing to expand your belly – think about inflating a balloon rather than filling a bucket. And then breathing slowly out through your mouth will help you to fully empty your lungs of CO2.
4. Extend Your Exhale It’s no wonder that breathing biohacks are so effective when they have such a profound and immediate impact on your heart rate. You can see this for yourself simply by wearing a heart rate monitor (or Apple Watch etc), and breathing in and out. You’ll see that when you inhale, your heart speeds up, and when you exhale it slows down. “The exhale is responsible for the parasympathetic response, and so when we make the exhale longer than the inhale, we enhance that feeling of peace,” says Clements.
The mammalian dive reflex counterintuitively calms you down when you hold your breath
4. Do Short Breath Holds Something that freedivers discovered long ago is the mammalian dive response, which we share with fellow mammals such as dolphins and whales. This reflex involves a host of apparently counterintuitive reactions to holding your breath, one of which is that it makes you calmer! “When we hold our breath for a short (and comfortable) period of time (5-10 seconds), the level of CO2 in our blood starts to rise. This stimulates the vagus nerve and that parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ response,” says Clements.
(Watch this space for more on the fascinating world of freediving and its ability to unlock your personal potential, in more ways than just imitating a dolphin…)
5. Get Musical If you’ve ever found yourself suddenly inappropriately humming a tune during a stressful situation, it turns out you were biohacking and you didn’t even know it, because the simple act of humming can have a powerful side effect. “Humming and using the vocal chords are another great way to trigger that ‘rest and digest’ relaxation response,” says Clements. But you can turbocharge this effect by paying attention to your breathing while you hum: “Inhaling through the nose and humming the exhale calms your nervous system and also releases nitric oxide, which again can improve circulation and lower blood pressure.”
Whatever your current stress levels, use these hacks every day to take the ragged edge off your emotions, and help to defeat chronic stress, without having to spend a single dollar.
WHAT NEXT? Ever wondered why you can’t keep hold of happiness? Then try these hacks for improving your mood…
For more on Jamie Clements, visit The Breath Space