Someone walks into your office and says, “I need this by the end of the day.” You already had a full list. You look up. The person says, “Really, this is critical.” You nod on the outside. On the inside your response is more colorful and you think, ‘Will this ever end?’
Moments when we feel overwhelmed, anxious, and worried take over our brains like a zombie apocalypse. They stop us from thinking clearly. They take away our pleasure in what we do. They make us feel like something is wrong or worse, is always about to go wrong. So what’s the answer? What am I supposed to do when my brain is melting?
First, a brief commentary on modern life. Your brain really thinks you are melting. The pace of the life, the devices in your pocket, and the hyper-connectivity of the global world and now solar system (it ain’t fun to hear about every asteroid that almost destroyed the planet), trigger us way too often. We work too much, sleep too little, eat too much, spend too little time with our friends, and damn, doesn’t the couch often looks better than whatever exercise device you paid $2000 for plus $30-$40 a month.
And, mental health challenges that impact so many of us are real. In addition to the triggers getting us down when we are well, it is even more challenging when we aren’t. Are the numbers of those of us struggling with mental health greater or just more apparent? The answer, according to research, is both. So now what?
What I am about to invite you to explore and apply is not magic. It is, however, a memorable application of millennia of ancient wisdom and decades of modern science. It is a distillation of why the simplest solution works and a path to making it possible to work for you. It has changed my daily experience of stress and mental health challenges, the lives of my execs and athletes, and maybe it can work for you.
The answer? Find the right breath shape to reconnect your brain.
The immediate objection is: You just told me to breath? I’m stressed. I have anxiety. Did you say shape? WTF Wortmann. The last phrase is not a new industrial company but an appropriate challenge to what may seem like a trite answer. It’s not. Snipers use it. World champions use it. Yogis use it. Stay with me.
So you are pretty good at breathing. Thanks to your brain stem, when you need extra oxygen in stress or danger, you breath faster. It happens without thinking. When you are resting, your breath slows. All of us have a “tidal” breathing level — our normal breathing rate and amount of air we push in and out of our lungs. The problem is when our stress levels stays up (way up), due to chronic stress or mental health needs, faster breathing turns to racing thoughts about what’s wrong, the feelings of anxiety and dread, and ultimately panic.
Your brain is trying to protect you and when the danger is inside you, there is nothing it can do but keep sending you signals something is wrong until you remove the danger. You can’t remove your insides. You can, however, it turns out, rewire them.
Breath work — defined as breathing on purpose before you need it (so you know what to do when you are stressed or mentally struggling) — is a not-so-secret-too-often-forgotten-exlixer.
But breath work has often felt too simple or too esoteric. Feeling bad? Breath. Well, of course. Why didn’t I think of that? On the other side, the paradox of breath as intervention is that promoters make it seem like its something we can only use properly if we pay for a fancy mantra, attend expensive week long retreats, or go to endless therapy.
Coda: I don’t recommend paying for mantras, though I love mantra based meditation. I do recommend long retreats, even expensive ones if you can afford them and as much therapy as you have time for. Retreats and the mini-retreat that is reflective time with a therapist or coach is priceless for getting your brain out of the stress patterns. You can, however, learn to breath intentionally on your own.
Then I started hearing different forms of breathing referred to as shapes. Then I started teaching people breath work shapes as one option to step back from stress. I teach dozens of step backs in workshops. But something unexpected has been happening. People repeatedly tell me their shape in post-workshop sessions. They were doing other forms of mindfulness too, and the stickiest memory file for so many folks is the shape of breath they use to get their brain back online when it starts melting.
Teaser: The shapes are circle, triangle, upside down triangle, and square.
The science. When you breath on purpose, you go from the short loop to the long loop. Your short loop is your amygdala pulling any negative memory, including feelings, from your memory centers to get you out of a situation. The moment you breath on purpose, though you may not feel better instantly, you are on the long loop. The highways of your brain, the neural connections, are open. You may still feel stressed or unwell, but you can think.
When you breath on purpose before you are stressed and then begin to use it when you are stressed, you build it as a habit. Habits come from cues, processes, and then rewards. In this case, the cue is stress or negative feelings, the process is breathing your shape two or more times, and the reward is you can think, and eventually, you feel more in control.
The definitions of the shapes are simple. Let’s use a four count as the base.
To sample a four count, breath in counting to four and then breath out for a count of four. That is, “Breath in one, two, three, four, breath out one, two three, four.”
You just performed a circle breath. It is continuous breathing for a few or as many circles as you need to feel like you can think again.
Do it long enough, ten minutes or more, and you just mediated. Breath work and meditation won’t fix all your problems, and what I find is that it gives us the ground of awareness, wellness, and personal control to begin taking on our problems.
Triangle breathing is breathing in for a four count, out for a four count, and then holding your breath for a four count before breathing in again.
Upside down triangle breath is breathing in for a four count, holding your breath for a four count, then breathing out before breathing in again.
Square breath is breathing in for four, holding for four, breathing out for four, and holding for four at the bottom before breathing in again.
Circle breathing is the breath response created by Herbert Benson. Triangle breathing is simply flipping the Yogic upside down triangle because it’s more comfortable for you. Square breathing is what snipers and bi-athletes in the Winter Olympics use.
In each case, the intentional breath is used to center down, to put the body at ease so the amygdala doesn’t falsely elevate our adrenaline levels. So which method works best and when?
The first answer is: It depends simply on what is most comfortable for you. I favor circle breathing when I am really stressed, upside down triangle breathing to center myself in the morning and evening and whenever I get a quick burst from an unexpected trigger. When a sniper is shooting, the stress is real. At the Olympics after skiing at max effort, the stress is real. When you need to perform, using the square to keep your brain from running away with your focus may work best for you.
The secret is to test all four models and see what impacts your experience. Here’s how.
First, determine how long to breath in and out. Some of the rowers I work with can comfortably breath in for 15, hold for 15, breath out for 15, and hold for 15. Folks with serious physical illness or older folks I have trained need to breath in for 2 and out for 2. When I am really stressed, I may breath in for 3 and out for 3 even though my normal pattern is 7.
Second, try four sets of each exercise. It will take you less than ten minutes. In and out for 5, four times, is 40 seconds. Which one makes you feel the most in control? The most calm?
Third, practice four sets of the form in the morning when you wake up and at night before you go to sleep. It’s not meditation, but if you do it for a full ten minutes or more, it is. What’s the difference? Duration. Simply time. Mindful stepping back is about getting your brain back online. Meditation is about intentionally waiting out your amygdala’s signals to see your true being and voice. We need both is a healthy life, but start with less so you don’t stop.
Finally, when you notice yourself stressed, use your shape. Two, three, or four reps will get you back thinking. It won’t fix things. It is not a cure all. It is the first step to giving you the capacity back to think, to choose what to do next, and to realize that your brain is running away with you — but you don’t have to let it.
In our opening case study, your to-do list before going home just got longer. You feel the stress. In fact, you feel really angry. What would you do? Two to four reps of your shape, then choose. Do you need to push something else to tomorrow? Do you need to push back on the person who gave you the work without thinking of your schedule? Is it a night to stay late? In most situations, we have choices. In most situations, we panic because we didn’t pause and think first. Your breath shape is the first step you can always take to not lose your mind.
Source: Jon Wortmann
Ooh I love this, the shapes and the ‘stickiest memory file’. I know exactly what you mean and it’s so helpful. Thank you 🙏