081: Breathe Easy

In This Episode: There’s a technique that can keep you calm, or even alive in an emergency, that’s so easy to learn you’re already doing most of it right now. You’ll be amazed at what it can get you through when you learn the rest of it, and I’ll tell you how.

081: Breathe Easy

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Show Notes

  • Help support Uncommon Sense: — yes, $5 is significant help!
  • Dr. Seppälä’s articles: in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, and in Psychology Today.
  • Lt. Col. David Grossman’s book On Combat on Amazon.
  • Uncommon Sense Episode 34: Scenarios, and my meditation I mentioned.
  • Kit’s blog article, Only a Breath Away, and Dr. Lou Corleto’s class, Conscious Breathing — you can use THISISTRUE as a coupon code over the next two weeks to get $50 off the class: I’d rather you get a discount than me get a bounty.


Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

I’m back from a quick break — I skipped last week to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I took Kit to a small, socially-distanced seminar at a mountain resort in Utah, which we could drive to in one easy day.

Lou, who we’ve known for a couple of years, was one of the presenters, and what he had to tell us was so interesting, I had to research it a bit when we got home so I could expand on it for you. Lou only had a short time slot!

He talked about — get this — breathing.

Newborn baby.
No lessons required.

“What’s so hard about breathing?”, you might ask. If you do ask that, you probably don’t have breathing problems. On the other hand, it’s true that we start breathing when we’re born without any sort of training, and the vast majority of our breathing throughout our lives is not under conscious control. Our body “just does it.”

On the other hand, we can consciously control our breath, and that helps us to consciously control other things. Now that I’m talking about it, you’re probably noticing your own breath. You likely weren’t thinking about it at all before you got to this episode, so you’ve gone from unconscious breathing to conscious breathing, just like that.

Check the Show Page in this spot: I’ve included an incredible video showing breathing, probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before: it’s a real-time MRI that lets you look inside a breathing human. You can see where the lungs are, and you can see the heart beating, and then there’s a deep breath. It’s amazing.

Fascinating MRI video showing the mechanism of human breathing. From the Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH (CC BY-SA 3.0), 16 September 2011

As you might expect, there is a lot of academic study on breathing, especially lately on conscious breathing techniques. Researchers led by Dr. Emma Seppälä, the science director of a research center at Stanford University and the co-director of a research center at Yale University, looked into anxiety, depression, and suicide among an at-risk population: college students, who also happen to be an easily accessible group for university researchers to study. This study, published in the journal “Frontiers in Psychiatry” this past July, looked at various techniques that are often used to try to counter these common problems — anxiety, depression, and suicide. They found that the participants who were randomly assigned to breath-centered meditation “showed the greatest impact, benefitting six outcomes: depression, stress, mental health, mindfulness, positive affect [or emotions,] and social connectedness.”

And there are no side-effects from breathing! No prescription needed! Just a little knowledge and practice.

“Learning to control your mind through conscious and controlled breathing is extraordinarily powerful,” Dr. Seppälä wrote in Psychology Today last year. She tells the story of a Marine Corps officer deployed to Afghanistan. Lt. Jake Dobberke was in a convoy riding in an MRAP: a Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicle, when they hit an IED — an improvised explosive device. After the roar of the explosion died down, Dobberke looked down and saw that both of his legs were torn up: he could see muscle and bone.

Most people — even a lot of soldiers — would pretty much freak out seeing such a thing happen to someone else, let alone themselves. But in the middle of the chaos, Dobberke, who was 26 at the time, thought back to a book he had read. Written by a U.S. Army Ranger, Lt. Col. David Grossman, it’s called “On Combat” — and yeah, I’ll link to it. The book breaks down the psychology and physiology of armed combat, and Grossman ought to know: he’s a former psychology professor at the West Point military academy and, after retiring from the military, he trained police departments and mental health professionals on how to deal with school shootings.

What Lt. Dobberke remembered from that book as he was considering his torn-up legs was “tactical breathing” — a ridiculously simple technique to calm the beta adronergic system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. It’s when your brain realizes you’re in deep trouble and it has to do something to remain alive. And what it normally does is panic. Panic kills in situations like this, so Dobberke used the “tactical breathing” technique he learned, and probably thought about from his training onward as he ran scenarios through his head from time to time.

081: Breathe Easy
Dobberke, welcomed home. (Family photo)

Here’s the technique: breathe in for four seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds. Repeat.

That’s it! Wild panting signals to your body that you’re in a panic: fight, or flee! But slow, controlled breathing signals to your body that you’re in control. You’re calm. You’re thinking.

If you have trouble doing an exhalation that takes that long, try pursing your lips, or forcing the air through your teeth. Kit found a device you can buy. It’s $80, and was essentially a straw. You don’t need an $80 straw, just practice a little!

Certainly Lt. Dobberke didn’t need a silly device, even though he was in a life or death situation. He was definitely calm, thinking, and in control: as the officer in charge of his team, he did several things pretty much all at once: he checked on his Marines to see who was OK and who needed help. He ordered his driver to signal for help with an orange smoke grenade, since their radio was taken out by the blast. He applied tourniquets to his own legs. He only had very short time to act, and he got everything done because he used that tactical breathing technique to calm himself down so he could think and protect himself and his men. And then he passed out from blood loss.

And just what is all of that? Uncommon Sense in action!

“I was doing the breathing because I thought otherwise I was going to go into shock,” he told Dr. Seppälä. “Later on, I found out that given the amount of blood I was losing, if I had not had the calmness and presence of mind to tie the tourniquets, I would have bled out and died.” He did lose both legs below the knee, but he didn’t lose his life. And, thanks to prosthetics, he danced at Dr. Seppälä’s wedding.

One of the ways that makes slow breathing work like this is that it activates the vagus nerves: a pair of major nerves that run from your head, down between your carotid arteries and jugular veins, and linking to your heart, lungs, and digestive system. The technique works even faster if you can manage short breath holds in the process, for example four seconds inhale, hold for 10 seconds, 8 seconds exhale. It really is that simple.

And this is critically important, so let me summarize: by controlling your breath, you control your body and your mind. Or, as Dr. Lou put it at our conference last week, “The mind masters the senses, but the breath masters the mind.” Anxiety can make you breathe fast, but breathing fast can also make you anxious. Or deliberate breathing techniques can make you calm, even in extraordinary, life-threatening situations.

Did you know you can control your mood with conscious breathing techniques? Your body does! So it makes sense to learn about this stuff, rather than …well… blow it off because you think you know how to breathe already. Because odds are, you actually don’t know the power of these techniques.

In a similar way, you can improve your mood by smiling. When you’re feeling good and happy, it’s natural to smile. And it works the other way around: when you’re feeling angry or unhappy, forcing yourself to smile activates the very same nerve pathways, and signals your brain to feel better.

The hard part in all of this is to remember to do it.

And that’s where running scenarios comes in. When you picture yourself in situations and, in the calm of meditation or deep thought, think about “If this happens, what I’ll do is _____” — so you’ll already know what to do when “that,” or something like “that,” happens! Scenarios were discussed in Episode 34, which I’ll link to on the Show Page.

Again, it could not just save your life, but you may find you can think if a loved one suffers a big injury. Wouldn’t that be better than watching them bleed to death? That’s how powerful conscious breathing is. That’s why I introduced the idea in the meditation I recorded: the slow, deep breathing I suggested there is an easy way to start. As Dr. Lou says, you can get your life back rather than be scared. Or as I put it, you can live with Uncommon Sense, or not: that’s a choice you have. Choose wisely.

All of these things: conscious breathing, scenarios, meditation, they’re all ways to help you think. And that is the most powerful ability of all.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast81, which has the links I mentioned, and a place to comment. I’ll also link to a breathing class that Dr. Lou offers. It’s $200, and while I did sign up for it, I haven’t had a chance to start it yet, so I don’t have a review for you. Kit also wrote a brief article on conscious breathing when we got home, and I’ll link to that, too, since looking at these things from different directions helps insure that the ideas click in your mind.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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3 Comments on “081: Breathe Easy

  1. PTSD: For almost 40 years it was next to impossible for me to get to sleep — the bed is not a safe place 🙂

    But doing conscious breathing, along with some visualization meditation, For the first time in my adult life I could actually fall asleep like most people. I use 8 seconds in both directions with 4 seconds hold on both sides. I don’t even know where I got it from, probably a combination of sources, but it did the job.

    It also helped in my day to day life — no major depressive episodes or suicidal thoughts since then. Over ten years now.

    Wow: that’s a huge change from something so simple! Amazing, and I’m very happy for you. -rc

  2. Two things:

    “Here’s the technique: breathe in for four seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds. Repeat.” — the timing’s somewhat arbitrary, but there’s a technique also known as “box breathing” where you inhale, hold, exhale, hold, for 4 seconds each. I’m told Navy Seals also utilize this technique, particularly when prepping for some kind of imminent action. (Google it if you like, there are many, many references.)

    Second, I’d also recommend the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, which is also eye opening in terms of breathing’s effect on more than just your breathing. 🙂 I’m about 2/3rds the way through.

    There are definitely several techniques, so thanks for making that clear. It’s amusing that you happen to be reading all about it right now! -rc


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