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#32: Don’t forget to breathe!

The path to freedom can occasionally be bumpy. There are the moments when I don’t feel free at all and the feeling of compulsion – external or self made – nearly overwhelms me.

Then I take time to breathe.

Breathing is one of the most basic things we do. To me, it’s so important – and not just the process itself, but also the way we breathe – that I almost wrote about it in The ABC of Freedom instead of uncluttering (in the German original, both words begin with the letter A).

Most of us breathe too fast and too shallow, keeping our bodies in fight-or-flight-mode, as breathing influences the autonomic nervous system, which ramps the body up and down between stress and rest.

You can write a whole book about the subtleties of human breathing. Today, you’ll get a single, tiny morsel of knowlege, but one that has the power to change your life.

I’m a huge fan of the Huberman Lab podcast, in which neurobiologist Andrew Huberman talks about science and science-based tools. He did a whole episode about breathing and presented a small, yet incredibly powerful technique.

Huberman calls it the physiological sigh. The process has been scientifically researched and even occurs naturally, even in other animals.

Here’s how it works:

Breathe in swiftly as deeply as you can, ideally through your nose. Now don’t exhale, but inhale again! Sounds impossible, but it works.

Huberman explains it like this: The farthest reaches of our lungs consist of about 300 million small bubbles, the alveoli. These are slightly moist inside and sometimes tend to stick together a bit. If you breathe in a second time after you feel like you’re full of air, the collapsed alveoli “pop” open and you really fill your lungs to the brim.

Then exhale all the way until your lungs are completely empty. Huberman shows it on Youtube in a short clip, breathing quite rapidly. For me, inhalation and exhalation take twice to three times as long.

Someone cut you off while you were driving. A loud bang startled you. You had an upsetting argument.

With the physiological sigh, you can calm down from one moment to the next. A single pass is all it takes; a second or third usually leads to an unexpected level of relaxation after a moment of stress.

An incident that might have weighed you for hours can lose all power in a matter of minutes with this technique.

However, the physiological sigh also makes an excellent routine for staying relaxed in the long run. In fact, studies suggest that breathing for five minutes a day with this technique is better for long-term stress reduction than five minutes of meditation. Subjects were calmer and more relaxed not only during the routine, but over a 24-hour period.

I’m currently experiencing a time when I often feel I have to function. Driven by my tasks, plans and desires, I don’t feel very free. It helps a lot to have a tool at hand to bring myself back to my center.

When I made the physiological sigh part of my morning routine, my resting pulse rate dropped significantly over a period of several weeks. When I skipped the breathing exercise for a while, it went back up, only to drop again after I resumed the routine.

But what does my experience mean? Try it for yourself and tell me how it helps you!


Yours, Ulrich

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