Why Knowledge Workers Should Focus on Their Breathing

Updated: Jan 25

Numerous studies have shown that with breathing exercises, you can change the state of your nervous system in less than 5 minutes. Consistently. You actually create a measurable change in your blood gasses and even your blood pH, which in turn will affect oxygenation of the body and brain and the state of your autonomous nervous system. Curious?

Man outdoors and breathing relaxed through his nose
We all want to feel more calm and centred, but it can be hard to find the time and place. And yet, most of us rarely think about the way we breathe or notice that we breathe too fast and shallow.

Maybe you've heard of Wim Hof, the Ice Man, who uses breathing to help fight off illness, or how elite soldiers use Box Breathing to calm themselves down and help focus before an important mission? In any case, the popularity of breathing and breath-work has exploded in the last years. In this article, you'll learn why you should turn your focus on breathing and how to do it.

You're probably breathing somewhere between 10 and 20 times per minute - on average about 23.000 times per day

The fact is that right now you're most likely looking at a screen (unless you printed this article, which I doubt) and that you're probably breathing somewhere between 10 and 20 times per minute - on average about 23.000 times per day. An ideal, healthy rate of respiration at rest is generally considered to be between 8-12 breaths per minute (depending on the text book you read), but today many of us are breathing much faster at 15-20 times per minute even if we're sitting still in front of the computer or phone. Most of us are mildly hyperventilating and over-breathing. Why is that? (Source: Dennis Lewis)


It seems that our lifestyle has slowly, but surely eroded the quality of the optimal breathing that we had from birth. When you do something more than 8 million times per year, even a slight imbalance is sure to have a profound effect in the long run.

It seems that our lifestyle has slowly, but surely eroded the quality of the optimal breathing that we had from birth.

Try and notice your breath right now. How fast is it? How deep down does it reach? Let's start by taking a look at what the problem actually is.


Email Apnea

An alarmingly common phenomenon that seems almost bizarre, is 'Email apnea'. It describes how we unconsciously hold our breath and drop into quick and shallow breathing when we're responding to emails or answering messages on our phone. Consider this for a moment: when you’re afraid, you inhale and hold your breath. You become hyper alert to any motions or noise around you and you get ready to fight or to run away really fast from that lurking Smilodon (sabre-tooth tiger).

Man looking at computer
During email apnea we hold our breath and our breathing becomes irregular. This activates our para-sympathetic nervous system and causes us to feel more stressed.

During email apnea, or compromised breathing, we tighten up and go into fight or flight mode, ready for combat. This is great for when we need to swim away from a hungry shark, the before-mentioned Smilodon or when we need to fight off an attacker in the street. It's less great for reading emails and especially when this happens on a daily basis.

There's even a specific term called 'Email apnea', which describes a seemingly very common phenomenon where we unconsciously hold our breath

So next time you're going through your inbox or phone messages, try to notice what happens to your breathing. There are not many studies that have looked into this and similar phenomena, but you can read more here on the website of Linda Stone, who coined the term and did her own research.


Coffee running down from an espresso machine
Coffee is great in smaller quantities, but not when it becomes a crutch that you can't function without.

A Way Out of a Vicious Circle

As a remedy to deal with these challenges, we all resort to nervous system manipulation with tools such as Netflix binge-watching, red wine, chocolate, ice cream, and of course our all-time favorite at the workplace... massive amounts of that black rocket fuel... coffee. It's a vicious circle of addiction and self-manipulation and it's detrimental to our health.


Lucky for us there are other options and when we turn our attention to the way we breathe and decide to consciously change it, we take back the power to break the pattern of involuntary stress response. We get the chance to balance our nervous system before we reach a dangerous tipping point. We can basically tell our body that the emails are not physically dangerous and that we don't need to be in emergency mode all of the time. It might not solve the problem of a bad work environment or being in a job you hate, but it could give a break to find the calm and power to make a change.

We have the power to break the pattern of involuntary stress response and balance our nervous system before we reach a dangerous tipping point.

This can mean the difference between burnout or balance. What we all need is good mind-body awareness to notice how we feel mentally/emotionally and when that limit is approaching. And then we need the tools to intervene, which is where conscious breathing and breathing exercises comes in.

Breathing is the most immediate way to affect your nervous system. It’s faster than any pill, cup of coffee or glass of red wine

Here's a bold statement for you: Breathing is the most immediate way to affect your nervous system. It’s faster than any pill, cup of coffee or glass of red wine, and the outcome way safer, non-addictive and very predictable.


Breathing is faster than any pill
The way we breathe works faster than any pill because it affects our body chemistry directly.

Mindfulness Meditation versus Breathing

Mindfulness Meditation has been the craze for at least the last decade or so and it has long ago made its entry into the workplace also. But as it turns out, it might not always be a very effective tool for most people. In the office it can be hard to find both time and space for meditation. Usually, it takes up to 20 minutes before the effect really kicks in and that's only if you're truly capable of tuning out of those obsessive thoughts that keep flying around in your mind like angry bats.


For many of us, sitting quietly with only our own thoughts as our only company for 20 minutes can be nothing less than pure torture and we come out of it feeling worse than when we started. This is a major obstacle to budding meditators that just wanted some peace of mind and it's also why meditation teachers often tell the practitioner to focus on... the breath.

But it's easier said than done. We usually keep going back into our hard-coded thought patterns, just as we've done for years and years. It's not easy to change habits.

When we have a fix-point, an anchor to keep the focus on, it enables us to stay here (if we can) and get a break from our often repetitive thought patterns. But it's easier said than done. We usually keep going back into our hard-coded thought patterns, just as we've done for years and years. It's not easy to change habits.


Meditation on the beach
Traditional mindfulness meditation is an amazing tool to connect with yourself, but it takes practice, time and the right environment without distractions

With simple breathing exercises (which you can try out via the link in the end of this article) you'll be able to quickly calm down your run amok thoughts since your body will enter a calmer state where focus comes easier and you'll feel how you have more energy available. This can really matter a lot at work where time is limited. Also, this type of exercises can be done invisibly if necessary and you can just stay sitting in your chair while you do them. Focus can be kept on counting the in- and exhale and you don't need to close your eyes or sit in any specific position.

And lastly, the effects of changing the way you breathe are evidence-based and directly measurable in the body.

And another great bonus with breathing is that it's accessible to everybody. Everybody breathes, we all know what it's about and how it's done. There are no esoteric terms or religious connotations and we only need to slightly change our regular breathing to achieve a powerful effect.


Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system has two main states: Sympathetic (fight/flight) and Para-Sympathetic. With breathing you can quickly affect the state when you want.

And lastly, the effects of changing the way you breathe are evidence-based and directly measurable in the body. There's no discussing that you're changing your body chemistry in minutes and that your nervous system is affected. There are numerous solid studies behind this and more and more are coming.

One could even ask if the big wave of mindfulness we've see will partially be replaced by breath-work and conscious breathing training

One could even ask if the big wave of mindfulness we've seen will partially be replaced or at least augmented by breath-work and conscious breathing training that fits better into our modern work practices - at the office and at home. At least it seems like awareness is increasing sharply and that publicly visible proponents like Wim Hof or the author James Nestor are carrying the interest to new heights. It should be mentioned though that some of the methods you'll find are more extreme than you might need. In fact, most experts seem to agree that the simplest exercises are the most effective. You don't need to hold your breath for minutes or to hyperventilate until you're almost passing out to tap into the power of breathing. Sometimes simple is the most powerful.


What You Can Do Right Now

I suggest that you try it out yourself. If you have just 2 minutes then put your headphones on right now and do this balancing breathing exercise that's both simple and safe for everybody at any time: 4:4 Balancing Breath


If you're still skeptical or just curious to know more, then check out this collection of science and studies on the topics of breathing.



 

Kasper Karup is a certified Breath Coach and yoga teacher and has practiced and taught breathing techniques from yoga and beyond for more than 15 years. Since he found out how powerful these practices are, he's now focused on sharing his passion with the world and on how to apply the techniques in a corporate setting.

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