How To Improve Mental Focus & Concentration Just By Breathing
Concentration is the secret of strength.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist, lecturer, & philosopher
Due to physical and mental health issues, I grappled with major brain fog and mental haziness some time ago.
It was so frustrating to feel like no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t for the life of me sustain focus on even the simplest tasks at hand.
This, of course, impacted my performance at work which made me even more stressed out and anxious which made my brain fog worse.
You see the vicious cycle here?
So I turned to yogic breathing as a way to help me manage my chronic stress, anxiety, brain fog, and even insomnia.
That’s when I experienced first-hand the incredible power of my own breath as a potent tool to help me increase inner calm, mental focus, and deep rest.
Surprisingly, the simple act of first becoming aware of my own breath, and secondly, learning to consciously regulating it, served as a type of mental fitness exercise that strengthened my focus and concentration muscle.
The more I observed my breath, the calmer I would feel, which facilitated my ability to sustain presence and therefore focus.
I learned that the breath is intimately tied to my emotions and my emotions are intimately tied to my ability to focus in a sort of dance where one impacts the other and vice versa.
By slowing down my breathing pattern and consciously manipulating my inhales, breath-holds, and exhales I could start to send safety signals to my brain and nervous system.
These safety signals activate the branch of the nervous system that oversees the relaxation, rest, and regeneration response.
And this is the fertile space we want to be in for our mind to be able to slow down and concentrate.
The more stressed we are, the harder it’ll be to focus…
HOW CHRONIC STRESS SHRINKS OUR BRAINS AND IMPEDES MENTAL FOCUS
Chronic stress really wreaks havoc on our minds.
Stress literally kills brain cells.
One single stressful situation has the power to kill neurons in the brain’s hippocampus region (an area that impacts memory and emotion.) (1)
Chronic stress shrinks the brain, which leads to mental impairment.
Specifically, stress shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with attentional control, decision making, complex thinking, working memory, moderating social behavior. (2)
What’s worse, as I experienced personally, a chronically stressed-out brain becomes wired and predisposed to being in constant stress mode thus creating a vicious cycle.
Chronic stress not only shrinks the part of our brain associated with higher thinking but has also been shown to increase the size of the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for experiencing emotion (fear in particular) and processing emotional memories. (3)
Our amygdala is like our brain’s alarm system, sending distress signals whenever threats are perceived.
We’re disconnected from our mental power when we don’t develop and cultivate habits that help us counter stress.
Lucky for us, one of the biggest stress-busting tools at our disposal just happens to be literally right under our nose…
THERE’S A PHYSICAL LINK BETWEEN BREATHING AND THE BRAIN’S FOCUS NETWORK, ACCORDING TO RECENT STUDY
A study published by Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience confirms that you can indeed deepen attentional control through practicing breath control. (4)
Researchers found a specific physical link between breathing patterns and a part of the brain directly related to attention and focus levels.
They found that the way we breathe directly influences the chemistry of our brains.
Specifically, our breathing rhythm influences noradrenaline (aka norepinephrine) levels. This brain chemical is released when we are focused, curious, or emotionally aroused.
At optimal levels, noradrenaline acts like brain fertilizer – helping the brain grow new connections: (5)
“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain,” says Michael Melnychuk, Ph.D. candidate and the study’s lead author, “When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking, and memory are much clearer.”
Melnychuk goes on to say: “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind…
This study has shown that… our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration.
It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized.”
BREATHE LIKE BOTH A YOGI AND A NAVY SEAL WITH THIS SUPER SIMPLE TECHNIQUE
The following is a super simple (and very effective) yogic breathing exercise for an immediate focus boost.
Don’t let its simplicity fool you into thinking that because it’s so easy it’s not really that effective.
In fact, it’s so effective it’s even used by Navy SEALS to manage high-stress situations in order to perform optimally and maintain a clear head and concentration.
In the Navy circles, it’s known as Tactical, Combat, or Box Breathing.
In the yogic circles, it’s known as Sama Vritti or Equal Breath.
A few pointers before we get started…
1- Sit comfortably and upright, with your mouth, face, neck, jaw, and shoulders relaxed.
2- Breathe through your nose, not your mouth.
3- Expand your lower belly outwardly with each inhale.
4- Contract your lower belly inwardly with each exhale.
5- Try not to move your shoulders, neck, chest, or upper body.
Ok let’s begin…
Step 1 – Inhale for 4 counts
Step 2 – Hold for 4 counts
Step 3 – Exhale for 4 counts
Step 4 – Hold for 4 counts
Step 5 – Repeat Steps 1-4 for a minimum of 12 rounds (just over 3 minutes)
Follow the prompts below for a guided Sama Vritti session now:
How do you feel after just 12 rounds?
Can you feel the effects?
The more regularly you practice this technique, the more effective it will become.
Again, don’t let the simplicity of it fool you – if it’s effective enough for Navy SEALs to use, it will very likely be effective for you!
Let me know how you get on 🙂