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One Small Change

Breathe Better Under Pressure

stevenfernandez / flickr

I’m driving west on Route 78 with my family, two dogs and my mother’s cherished pork-kraut roll when the Lexus that just screamed past suddenly veers right and just misses my front bumper. My heart instantly starts hammering in my chest and ears, and when I glance in the rearview mirror to see if everyone is okay I notice my face has gone pale. When I take my hand off the steering wheel, it’s shaking.

No doubt you've had a similar experience. This is the body’s fight-or-flight response kicking in. Whenever we’re threatened, this mechanism instinctively prepares us to either run or rumble. Heart rate quickens in order to pump blood where it’s needed most, at the same time that blood is drawn away from extremities as a protection against injury. It's simultaneously invigorating and debilitating. Rational thought is replaced by caveman impulse.

“Research shows that there are two pathways to the brain,” explains Al Lee, co-author of Perfect Breathing. “One is for rational or attentional thought, while the other is for emotions. The two pathways are inversely related. So when your emotions start heating up, your ability to think rationally diminishes. That’s why you have crimes of passion or road rage.”

The key to retaining control in these situations is, as Lee explains, “to focus on an attentional task that brings down the emotional side and lets you be more objective.” And researchers have found that breathing does this best.

Shortly after being cut off, I remembered Lee’s advice and started what he calls Pressure Breathing. Here’s how it goes:

  • Exhale
  • Inhale through your nose for 3 seconds.
  • Purse your lips and exhale, while letting your cheeks inflate. Draw the exhalation out to a count of 10 or however long you can. Try to get every last bit of air out of your lungs.
  • Repeat until you’ve settled down.

What that long exhalation forces you to do is breathe. You have no choice; the inhalation becomes an automatic, life-preserving response. This corrects the tendency to take very short, shallow breaths when we’re scared or having a panic attack. The pursed-lips trick, according to Lee, puts pressure on the vagus nerve at the back of the throat, which triggers many anxious symptoms.

And the drill works.

Within a minute, I was feeling myself returning to normal and realizing that it would be foolish to chase that idiot. Instead I slowed down (what’s the rush anyway?) and took solace in the fact that my family, dogs and pork-kraut roll were all safe.

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Relaxation, Stress, Pressure