Control your Emotions by Breathing

Our breathing is the only body system that’s both automatic and in our direct control. And most of us breathe suboptimally. Just Breathe explores how breathing optimally can change our lives.

This week, I explore two points which have a solid scientific backing already:

1 – Being aware of your breath can help you tune into your emotional state and be more present. You can apply that insight to understand how other people are feeling, too.

2 – One of the most effective ways to combat chronic stress and build mental health is to spend 15 minutes a day breathing slowly.

Want to know more?

This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.

  • The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
  • The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
  • I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck

If you want to know more about Just Breathe take a look at Brule’s website here.

Starboard reflections,


This week’s video:-


Breathing is the only system in our body that is both automatic and under our direct control. And most of us breathe suboptimally. Dan Brule has made it his life’s work to use breathing to change people’s lives, including his own.

In this video, I’m going to pull out two of the strategies that he talks about that already have a solid, scientific backing. Over time, there will be more, I think. Firstly, I’ll talk about the value of being aware of your breath and how people around you are breathing too.

And I’ll explain why it is biologically, that your breathing is so closely related to how you feel. Secondly, I’ll talk about how to use your breathing, to reduce stress and likely build your health too. Again, with a brief discussion of the science behind.

First a quick note about the book. This is Dan Brule’s book full of life stories and his expertise and the stories of other people that he’s come across, who are in some way, exceptional. They’ve used their breathing or breathing has been part of the practice that has led them to excel in their fields, has built their immunity, their thermo-regulation treated their PTSD, reduce their asthma, help them deal with pain, help them getting core strength, trigger psychedelic like trips, prepare for combat, be more creative, unleash their spirituality. All of these people are exceptional and their practices of wider than just their breathing.

So what I’m going to do in the video is just talk about the two more general areas that also have backing from elsewhere.

I think there is probably a lot more to the breathing is currently understood by science, which is one of the reasons I’m sharing this with you now, but I’m not going to talk about the more anecdotal claims at the moment, because I don’t know whether they’re worth sharing or not.

(section 1) – why your breathing matters

What is undoubtedly true is that most people breathe suboptimally. What you should be able to do with your breathing is breathing at any rate from about two or three breaths per minute, to about 120 breaths per minute, through your chest for your stomach. And most people breathe quite quickly through their chest, primarily, particularly in Western cultures.

And don’t control their breathing consciously at all.

If you already know anything about meditative practice or the idea of mindfulness, which has recently been popularized, you’re probably cognizant already of the idea of breath awareness, focusing, nonjudgmental attention on how you’re breathing. And this is something that Dan Brule sees as the first step to gaining control of your breath, being able to watch it.

by watch it, he doesn’t mean breathe at a certain rate or do anything particular. He just means spend some time noticing when you breathe in and noticing when you breathe out, ideally correlate that with your emotional state. So, are you breathing quickly because you’ve just been on a run at the most simplistic level, or are you breathing in a kind of very shallow pattern because you’re anxious about something, which is another thing that would be common to many people?

How does your breathing reflect your mood and your state more widely? That’s the question to bear in mind while you watch how you breathe. This is something that can act in itself as a meditative practice, you may have read about the benefits of meditation before, or seeing one of my previous videos where I talk about the way that meditation helps to reduce stress over the longterm.

You can also watch other people’s breathing. If you’re in a situation where you’re watching people speaking, or you’re in a meeting watching people, or you’re having a conversation with somebody and they’re talking at more length and you have time to do this. Watch them breathe, see the breath going in and out.

And if you do that, both for the people and for yourself, you’ll be able to read emotions in people more accurately. Not in a conscious way of thinking, “Oh, she’s breathing really quickly. Maybe she’s excited”, but in a subconscious way. You’ll just read people better. It’s one of those trained intuition skills that I talk about quite regularly

let’s move on to the why. Your autonomous nervous system is split into two parts, the sympathetic nervous system, SNS, and the parasympathetic nervous system, PNS. The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes when you’re stressed. Stressed as intense or under strain, think of it in that way. It doesn’t have to be bad.

So if you’re running a race deliberately, then your SNS is mobilized. If you’re running away from a lion, your SMS is mobilized. It can be any type of strain rather than just stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to step in and restore the balance. So the idea is that you have this, this autonomous system that excites you and gets you ready for action. And you have the PNS, the parasympathetic nervous system that then relaxes you, allows you to calm down and allows your normal processes, digestion, lots of the subconscious thinking, the default mode network thinking in your brain allows those things to happen.

The problem is for most people their SNS their stressed or strained nervous system is overactive and their PNS that should be relaxing you, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t have enough time. And that imbalance is at the root of a lot of stress. And if you can do something to fix that imbalance, then you can help with a whole raft of anxiety and stress related conditions, as well as general health, thinking and everything in life.

Basically, if you can restore that balance, life gets better.

The idea of intervening using your breathing and a few other techniques. Comes partly from Stephen Porges polyvagal theory. So this is the observation that roughly 80% of the nervous pathways along the vagal nerve, which mainly controls the PNS, run from the body to the brain, rather than the other way. That is to say 80% of the information that flows along the vagal nerve is intro reception. It’s your body receiving signals from inside your body in a way that you don’t even know about. You don’t even notice any of these.  These are largely subconsciously processed and used internally for regulatory purposes.

The lungs for one example are full of receptors. They detect chemicals, they detect stretch, they detect the pressure of your lungs in, in themselves. And all of those signals end up in your brain, not in your conscious brain, but in the rest of your brain. And they end up in the particular parts of your brain that are known to regulate your emotions are known to regulate your perceptions and therefore your thoughts and how you act as well.

So the idea is, that Brule puts forward and that is backed up by Porges and some other sciences as well, that if you control how your lungs, since the world, by controlling your breathing, then you can affect your emotional state, which in turn affects how you treat the world around you. It’s a kind of happy circle.

So you breathe more calmly in a, in a more relaxed manner that shows your body, that you’re feeling relaxed and you begin to feel relaxed, which calms your breathing and you get into this kind of virtuous circle.

(section –breathe, feel less stressed)

Breathing in rhythm with something is a really simple tip. So that might be music. It might be footsteps. It might be how you’re shuffling as you’re arguing with somebody or when you’re moving, but moving in time with something or someone else can help you to live those emotions and to regulate them and to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

But the more interesting exercises that Brule suggests through a variety of other people, as well as himself, are those, which if you partake in them daily can lead to measurable stress, benefits, and health benefits over time as well. So one daily practice is to just sit for a few minutes, maybe five minutes, three times a day, breathing in and breathing out of four to six breaths per minute.

So that’s five seconds in five seconds out.

The studies behind this show that if you spend five minutes doing that three times a day, you will reduce your average heart rate. Your blood pressure will drop. Your cortisol, one of the stress chemicals will drop. Your oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and alpha waves will all increase. I was reading to check the full list there. Basically a raft of things about how your body regulates emotions and regulates itself and conducts its internal processes will all improve for 15 minutes of your day, five minutes, three times a day.

That’s the prescription that he gives to people as a way of starting taking conscious control of your breath. You do that, you should feel better both immediately and over time. So each five minutes of breathing in and breathing out. And I’ll give you an opportunity to do this in a minute, lasts for around four hours.

The medically measured effects of that five minutes of practice. If you continue the practice three times a day for about a week, the effects last about four weeks. And there are longer-term studies, too. So what I’d like you to do if you fancy playing along while I talk about some of the things is watch the circle.

When the circle expands breath in, when the circle contracts breathe out. It’ll take five seconds in five seconds out. You’ll be doing the exact practice I just mentioned. And I’ll leave the circle up when I finished speaking, just to get you through your first five minutes. And if you like that and you find it an interesting practice for you and you want to give it a go, I’ll recommend an app in the comments as well, just to carry on that practice.

Why does this work? The science behind it is based on heart rate variability. The heart speeds up on your breathing. And the heart slows down when we breathe out, if you download the app that I’ve mentioned at the bottom, or that there’s a load of others as well, you’ll be able to see that happen on a graph, which is quite interesting.

I first did this only a few months ago, actually. And it was amazing the extent to which you can control your heart rate just by lengthening in or lengthening out your breathing.

Anybody who takes their heart rate variability from here to here over time has a reduced level of all of the things associated with stress in their body, through a huge numbers of studies that show this, and it’s remarkably consistent in how well it works for different people, despite conditions in their lives.

And breath consciousness is one way to get there. So taking control of your breath, spending the five minutes, three times a day, just continually. Helps those people who are feeling stressed to begin to regulate that. It helps younger people to regulate their emotions more quickly. We found with our kids.

And it correlates well with other health measures as well.

Regardless of the method you use to improve your heart rate, variability, just improving it reduces stress levels. you can do it with aerobic exercise and loads of other things, too,

Were you still feeling overwhelmed from what was for many and incredibly stressful, 2020, and you want to start 2021 by helping your body to recover, helping your parasympathetic nervous system to activate in a way that it probably hasn’t been given a chance to recently, just try following the circle for the next few minutes.

And then if you find it useful, carry on.