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Why Optimal Breathing Is Key To Calm, Clear Focus

As you'll have gathered by now if you've been following my articles on stress resilience, I like to think in terms of resources. When I work with a client, we try to work out what's needed to solve their stress issues and achieve their goals. To some extent it's an individual matter of course, but one thing that is pretty much universally useful is calm, clear focus. One big reason stress is a problem is that it wrecks focus. 

I teach clients how to access body states that support resources like calm, clear focus, and one of the  mainstays for this is optimal breathing. It relates to one in particular of the five core mind-body skills I presented in my Stress Resilience Blueprint: letting go physically and calming physiological arousal. In this article I'm going to explain why it's such a powerful technique.

Breathing is essentially about efficiently delivering oxygen to cells and appropriately removing carbon dioxide. Much of what you read about breathing for stress management is to do with deep, slow, abdominal breathing – but the mechanics of breathing is actually rather secondary to chemistry. Optimal breathing in the first place means optimally delivering oxygen to cells, and particularly brain cells.

The most common obstacle to optimal breathing is stress-induced over-breathing. It's a problem because it limits oxygen delivery to brain cells, and thereby limits brain performance. Yes, you read that right – somewhat paradoxically over-breathing leads to less oxygen to brain cells. In this article I'm going to explain how this happens. And if you think it doesn't apply to you, I have to tell you that a very large majority of my clients do over-breathe to some degree, and usually don't recognise it.

Of course, in extreme hyperventilation (as in a classic panic attack) you do know about it – but this is just the extreme end of a spectrum of breathing function. In extreme hyperventilation brain oxygen may be reduced by up to 60%. But in mild cases it might be 10 or 20% - not necessarily enough to notice, but enough to affect your brain performance and emotional well-being.

Why Do People Over-breathe?

The most common trigger by far is stress – over-breathing seems to be a natural part of the fight-or-flight response, which is of course preparing the body for action. It probably helps prioritize the muscles' claim on oxygen. But if you're not actually going to need to fight or flee (which is the case in most stress) it isn't very helpful.

It also seems to be related to the tendency to tighten up under stress, which I wrote about in an earlier article on muscle tension. If the main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, gets locked up with tension then you'll shift away from the more natural abdominal breathing and into chest-based breathing.

How Does Over-Breathing Reduce Brain Oxygen Delivery?

The key to the regulation of breathing is carbon dioxide – not just a waste product, it serves and important function in the blood. Over-breathing causes the amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in the blood to fall, and and this in turn causes the brain's blood vessels to constrict. The drop in blood CO2 also means that the blood holds on more tightly to its oxygen. These two effects combine to reduce brain oxygen delivery.

Optimal Breathing Training

In the first place optimal breathing means getting optimal oxygen delivery to brain cells. That means gentle breathing, and abdominal breathing – so deep in the body but not deep in the sense of big breaths filling the whole lungs.

In my Stress Resilient Mind programme I use capnometry biofeedback to teach optimal breathing. A capnometer measures carbon dioxide in the breath, which is known to correlate with carbon dioxide in the blood. It's the best measure of optimal breathing chemistry available. Without it, it's hard to know if you're getting it right (over-breathing is very easy).

HRV & Coherence Training For Optimal Breathing

Another aspect of optimal breathing is heart coherence, which you can work on using HRV biofeedback – but that's the subject for another article.

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