How To Use Focus Breathing To Improve Mental Functioning

With distractions coming at us from every direction on a daily basis, it’s no wonder why many of us have difficulty staying focused and getting things accomplished efficiently. Just like professional athletes and yogis use breathing to focus on their training and further their practice, you can incorporate breathing techniques into your day that slow distracting thoughts and help you find the focus you need.

Before a Presentation: 

If you’re feeling nervous about an upcoming exam or presentation, breathing exercises can make a huge difference. When you’re nervous, your breath becomes more shallow and restricted, decreasing the flow of oxygen to your body. Without adequate oxygen to the brain, your concentration and energy start to dissipate. Taking deep breaths before a big event can get that oxygen flowing once again, improving your focus and quieting the butterflies that are flying around in your stomach. Not only that, but studies have shown that practicing breathing exercises before exams can lead to reduced anxiety[1].

Put It Into Practice:

Try using equal breathing to bring your focus to your breath and calm your nerves. Start by taking a deep breath, in through your nose, and counting to four as you inhale. As you take a breath in, focus on the feeling of your lungs filling up with air and your belly filling up with air and rising. Then, slowly exhale to the count of four and as you exhale, focus on the breath leaving your body and how it feels. Do this five to ten times, each time counting to four. If you’re a more seasoned breather, try lengthening the breath by a second each time you inhale, up to 8 seconds.

Focus in the Office:

You’re faced with multiple deadlines, all of equal priority, your boss keeps adding items to your list of things to do, and your colleagues keep coming to your desk to discuss the latest Games of Thrones episode. If, like many of us, you find yourself distracted at work, focusing on breathing can help you concentrate. When we are distracted, you can focus on your breath can bring you back to the present. Use breathing exercises to lose those distractions. When you focus on the present and use breathing techniques, the worries and stresses that are distracting you fade away and you are able to focus on what is right in front of you.

The good news, too, is that it doesn’t take much time out of your busy day.

Put It Into Practice:

Try using a technique called alternate nostril breathing, for both increased focus and energy. Studies have shown that breathing through your left nostril can have a calming effect, while breathing through your right nostril will give you energy[2].

To try this simple technique, simply close off your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril. Pause for a moment. Now release your right thumb and close your left nostril with your left thumb and exhale slowly through your right nostril. Then alternate sides by inhaling through the right and exhaling through the left. Repeat several times, starting with just a few repetitions and building up over time.

Yes, I realize this may look a little silly at the office, especially if you have an open workspace, but if your office is like mine, you know that much stranger things can happen.

Control Your Cortisol:

Cortisol, the hormone released in stressful situations that raises our blood pressure, is a sure way to set your body and your mind into panic mode, shifting your focus from anything but what you’re trying to accomplish. By breathing through stressful situations, your stress levels decrease and you being reducing the level of cortisol in your bloodstream.

“Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.”

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Put It Into Practice:

Find a quiet and comfortable place, if possible. If all you have is your desk, that works too. Just try to find a time when you’re least likely to be disturbed by coworkers or other distractions. Start breathing in slowly through your nose, and exhaling slowly through your nose. Try to take ten breaths, with each breath being longer than the one before. While you’re breathing, try to quiet the chatter in your mind by focusing just on what your body is doing. Focus on your lungs filling with air and expanding. Then focus on how your body feels as you exhale all of the air out of your lungs. If a stress-evoking thought enters your mind, dismiss it and go back to focusing on your breathing.

Quiet an Anxious Mind:

Many people suffering with anxiety also find that their breathing feels restricted and shallow. This restricted and shallow breathing doesn’t allow for adequate oxygen to the brain and muscles, resulting in more stress. This cyclical pattern is what causes people to become entirely overwhelmed and lose focus on both personal and professional lives.

“When you keep breathing calmly or moving purposefully, your muscles will teach your brain that there is no real danger.” – Dr. Miriam Adahan, “Living With Difficult People, Including Yourself”

Put It Into Practice:

You can work to deepen your breathing, and letting go of the tension in your body and lungs by focused breathing exercises. By trying any of the breathing techniques above, you can quiet your anxiety and find calm and balance. It might not be easy at first, especially if you have moderate to severe stress or anxiety. Over time, however, your body will become trained so that deep breathing becomes second nature.

Have some favorite breathing techniques that help get you focused? Please share them in the comments sections. I’d love to hear from you!

[1] How to Reduce Test Anxiety 

[2] Immediate effect of specific nostril manipulating yoga breathing practices on autonomic and respiratory variables.

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Anxiety, Body & Mind

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