Breathing Psychology Basics
We often hear that the best moments in life are the ones that take our breath away. And of course, that’s meant to be a good thing. Unless you are an athlete competing in an important moment. Then we need our breath as a crucial performance optimisation skill.
As one of the sport psychologists at Condor Performance one of the more common issues we deal with is performance anxiety. Basically, competitors who often struggle to focus when it matters most. Many of us have heard of the fight-or-flight response. I like to remind people there is a third “F” – a freeze that can occur.
These stressful moments can trigger responses and our body is pre-conditioned due to millions of years of evolution to deal with this in a physical way. It prepares us to run or avoid the situation (flight). Or it helps us get overly aggressive (fight). But it can also shut down and pretend we’re not there (freeze). So part of the work we do as psychologists is to help athletes to recognise, manage and work through these moments.
Easier Said Than Done?
Research has shown that deep breathing can have many positive benefits for overall health along with the management of moments of high stress or anxiety. Deep breathing impacts the Vagus nerve which runs from the brain to the gut and is a key player in the FFF response. When we breathe in, this excites the nerve and the response. When we exhale, we relax the nerve and calm the response. If you’ve ever calmed a young crying child by getting them to breathe more slowly and deeply you’ve seen this process in action.
Take a moment now as you read this to try it out. First, focus on your breath in. Now hold it for a moment longer than normal and then exhale in a slow, controlled, and calm manner. You’re likely to feel a sense of calm within your body.
That’s the immediate benefit. But long term when we learn to breathe more effectively and deeper there are a string of other gains that have been reported. Below I list the most important from a ‘breathing psychology’ point of view.
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improvements in chronic pain
- Improved mental processing particularly around cognitive and emotional recognition tasks
- Better sleep outcomes
- Faster physical recovery from injury and/or delayed onset muscle soreness
- Shorter recovery times between high-intensity workouts
Optimal Breathing For Performance
Some researchers have suggested that there is such a thing as optimal breathing for performance. More importantly that it can be trained and achieved by most (if not all) when practiced regularly. So what exactly is optimal breathing? Like most areas of sport psychology, we are not 100% sure however the early evidence suggests the following:
- It is built around a nose-to-diaphragm way of breathing. In other words when at rest there wants to be little or no mouth breathing and/or upper chest breathing.
- Depending on age and fitness levels these nose-to-diaphragm breaths ideally take place between 6 and 10 times a minute. This part is crucial as it sends the strongest possible single to our body and mind we are safe and just ‘do your thing’. This is the very essence of this new concept of Breathing Psychology.
So better breathing definitely has the potential to be one of those 1%’ers that we hear coaches and athletes talk about all the time. Plus, optimal effective breathing will never be placed on the World Anti-Doping Association banned substances list 😀. But don’t take my word for it, take it from the bloke on the left and see how he is preparing to take a free kick in a high-pressure situation.
You might wonder why many sport and performance psychologists are trumpeting actions like breathing more than thought-based interventions. The answer lies in the amount of influence our clients have on each. Trying to change your thoughts ‘in the moment’ is very hard and even if you do not always beneficial. There are heaps of quotes on our sport psychology quotes pages that explain this in more detail. But breathing, as it’s an action, is something we have a lot more influence over. This influence is maximised when we take it seriously as part of our practice.
When you breathe better you deal with pressure better and think better. When you deal with pressure better and think better you perform better! And if you need a helping hand to get started then take a deep breath and get in touch.