Why Breathing Gets You Focused (and 5 ways to do it)

Why Breathing Gets You Focused (and 5 ways to do it)

Nick Heath, PhD Nick Heath, PhD
5 minute read

Here’s a question: Do you want a tool that will allow you to focus better anytime, anywhere? That’s somewhat rhetorical (and borderline gimmicky), but slow deep breathing might just be the exact tool for cultivating attention.

Breathing practices elicit physiological and psychological changes that prime our body for focus. They’re simple, free, and highly effective.

In this post, we’ll look at the science of how breathing enhances focus and provide a few easy practices you can use whenever you need to buckle down and get a task done.

The Science of Why Breathing is so Effective for Focus

There are several ways breathing can enhance our focus. Here, we’ll focus on three: noradrenaline, safety, and heart rate variability.

Noradrenaline

Noradrenaline is a hormone and neurotransmitter released in times of stress but also in times of focus or curiosity. Research published in 2018 found something interesting: Slow, deep breathing potentially helps put the brain into a “Goldilocks zone” for noradrenaline. That means you’re getting enough to increase focus, but not so much that you feel stressed out.

Safety

Johann Hari interviewed experts from around the world for his NYT bestselling book Stolen Focus. One conclusion he drew from Dr. Nadine Burke Harris was, “To pay attention in normal ways, you need to feel safe. You need to be able to switch off the parts of your mind that are scanning the horizon for bears or lions or their modern equivalents, and let yourself sink down into one secure topic.”

Our external environment can be critical for creating safety. However, our internal environment matters too. And this is where slow deep breathing comes in.

When we breathe slowly and deeply, we stimulate the vagus nerve, the main nerve of the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system. When it gets activated, it sends signals of safety to the brain.

Thus, by breathing slowly, we not only optimize noradrenaline but also tell our brains it’s ok to focus because we are safe.

Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a general marker of health, and higher HRV is generally associated with less stress and more resilience. Moreover, higher HRV is generally related to better attention.

One of the easiest ways to quickly increase HRV is slow breathing at around 6 breaths per minute. Breathing at this rate, we synchronize signals from our cardiovascular and nervous systems, making things run more efficiently and boosting HRV.

In the long term, with about 30 days of practice, we increase our baseline HRV, enhancing our baseline ability to focus.

The Practical Side: How to Breathe for Better Focus

Here are 5 simple breathing practices you can use to apply this science in your life today. Be sure to use nasal breathing for each of these.

4-6 Breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 6. Perform 6-12 breaths like this to get yourself in the zone or as a reset whenever you’re distracted. It’s simple, easy, and effective.

Centering Breath: This exercise comes from Dr. Jason Selk and Tom Bartow in their book Organize Tomorrow Today. Inhale for 6 seconds, hold for 2, and exhale for 7. You can simply perform one Centering Breath (yes, only 15 seconds) to set up a period of focus or aim for 4-8 to really get yourself into the zone.

Breath Counting Option 1: For either of the two breaths mentioned above, count in your head rather than using a breathing app or timer. As Dr. Leah Lagos tells us in Heart Breath Mind, “Counting is handled by the same area of the brain that’s responsible for worrying. It’s difficult to do both at the same time, so counting is exceptionally effective at crowding out stress, calming a busy brain, and enhancing focus.”

Breath Counting Option 2: Another way to apply this knowledge is simply sitting and counting your breaths. Inhale, and count in your head each time you exhale. Count 10 breaths consecutively, and then get started on your task. If you lose count, start over until you reach 10 without mind-wandering.

Alternate Nostril Breathing: This practice has been used for centuries to enhance focus. To perform it, you inhale through your left nostril, then exhale through the right. Next, inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left.

To combine all these, you can use either of the above rates (4-6 or 6-2-7). You should always use an even number of breaths so you finish exhaling through your left nostril. Be sure to count in your head while you’re doing it.

Now you understand how breathing can help you focus and have a few practices you can use next time you need to boost your attention and concentration. And if you’re having trouble controlling your breath, resB Lung Support is a great holistic tool to support your journey. You can learn more at www.resbiotic.com.

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About the Author

Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.

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