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By Reuben Brody
Even the Navy SEALs use breathwork to self-regulate.
“The cold is the greatest teacher,” says Wim Hof. Then he plunges into a frozen lake and swims under the ice for three to five minutes without taking a breath.
Wim has also climbed Everest in swim trunks, surmounted Mount Sniezka in Poland in the dead of winter in nothing but shorts and sat submerged in an ice bath for two hours while maintaining a stable core body temperature.
Though the media has dubbed him superhuman, he prefers Iceman. He’s not some freak of nature. He’s Dutch, lives on a houseboat and appears to be balding. His ability to endure extremes comes from a simple yet time-consuming breathing practice, which you can learn via his website for about $1,000.
Does it work? I’ve done it, and yes, it is impressive. I went from being able to hold my breath for 20 seconds to close to five minutes. I found (when I was practicing it) that I could endure the Pacific in winter sans a wetsuit, and that I longed for cold showers. I managed stress better, and went to David Lynchian levels in my Transcendental Meditation practice.
My practice has atrophied, but my understanding of the power of breathing has not. There are plenty of exercises to use in lieu of Hof’s brand, and they are far less time consuming and still harbor benefits.
Breathing is so simple, yet it’s so often overlooked in our daily lives. You’re reading this, perhaps at your desk, and dollars to donuts you’re taking shallow breaths, a process that denies your body oxygen.
When you inhale, oxygen fuels your cells, which powers your body, which produces carbon dioxide, a poison which you have to exhale. This process nourishes your body. However, when you are stressed or scared your nervous system kicks into fight-or-flight, and your breathing becomes either erratic or shallow. Cells suffer. Physiology is compromised. The physical stress impacts thoughts in the brain as well as feelings in the ticker.
Emotional and cognitive reactions may work in concert but they do so with a rotating maestro. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists refer here to a Triangle: At the top are thoughts, influencing feelings; while at the points on the base we find emotions, influencing how we behave, and behaviors, influencing how we think and feel. These points on the triangle are two-way streets. How you think can influence how you behave and feel, yet how you behave can influence how you think and feel, etc.
Breathing is part of your behavior. You may have a nervous thought that’s throwing off your breathing, and fixing the thought could lead to physiological improvement. However, you may not know what’s making you feel anxious, and this lack of awareness has your mind running in circles trying to solve the problem, and that has your breathing all out of whack, which makes everything worse. The algebra of the CBT Triangle lets you solve for thoughts and feelings by working on behavior and vice versa.
Breathwork is a key to solving the equation for Behavior. By steadying your breath you can calm the body to a point where it may see things clearly. It will alleviate stress, which can help you confront the issue head on, or it will create space for you to acknowledge the problem. After that you can validate the issue and replace it with a better thought.
The Wim Hof Method is rather complex and involves some extreme exercises so if this sounds appealing, and you have the time and the dimes, give the man his due. However, in a pinch, the CBT breathing technique is far simpler. To do it, sit comfortably in a chair, feet on the floor and calmly breathe into your diaphragm and release for four seconds, then hold for four seconds and breath in; rinse and repeat for five to ten minutes. The Navy SEALs also use a version of this technique, called Box Breathing, to help them with battle stress.
Whether it’s war, a polar bear swim, or a public speaking engagement, stress wrecks the body and the mind. But thinking of it as a teacher is a positive way to look at it. When I was suffering from anxiety I set reminders to practice breathing throughout the day, and I would use it when confronted with various triggers, too: if I was in Lyft, if I was in a long check-out line, and whenever Donald Trump was in the news.
Practice does make perfect.
If you would like more insight into breathing and how it can benefit you or if you simply want more practice with how you can implement mindful breathing into your daily life, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. If you would like more information, you can read more about personal growth counseling on our dedicated page.