This Will Take Your Breath Away

July 9, 2019 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner

Approx. Read Time: 10 Minutes


“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

We have previously written several articles including What Can Paying Attention to Your Breath Do for You? Mindfulness Impact on Mind-Body-Soul and Can Your Vagus Nerve Stimulate Your Business Success that deal with the positive impacts of breathing regimes and their benefits (often in the context of mindfulness). This article revisits the topic with one particular technique (routine) and the documented benefits that are very relevant to the world of business:

  • Stress reduction
  • Decision making

just breathe

What follows is a direct illustration of our objective with these blogs – namely sharing the information garnered in neuroscience that is directly relevant to business. In this case, an illustration of the ‘trifecta’: body/mind/business.


“A healthy mind has an easy breath.” – Author Unknown

As you may have noted, there have been a number of articles written on how specific breathing techniques improve the two aforementioned issues. In one case, the work centers around HRV – heart rate variability, which will be explained shortly.

The following summary in quotes (#6):

  • “Both symmetric and skewed breathing patterns significantly increased various HRV parameters.”
  • “Performing deep breathing exercises diminished perceived stress after a challenging decision-making task.”
  • “Performing deep breathing exercises improved the decision-making task results (nearly 50% more correct problems)”

What is Going On?

The essence of what is going on here is the “brain/body/business trifecta”.  The follow are two concepts to understand from relevant studies as related to your heart rate and vagal time:

  • “These studies provide evidence that higher resting HRV is associated with flexible and adaptive top-down and bottom-up cognitive processing, which facilitates effective emotion regulation. In contrast, lower resting HRV is associated with hyper-vigilant and maladaptive bottom-up and impaired top-down cognitive response to emotional stimuli, which is detrimental to emotion regulation. The results of these studies raise the possibility that maladaptive cognitive processing of emotional stimuli observed in people with lower HRV may be detrimental to emotional and physical health, which explains why people with a wide range of psychopathologies and health issues exhibit lower HRV.” (#4)
  • “HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response.” (#12)
  • “If we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive.” (#12)
  • “If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If one is in a more relaxed state.” (#12)
  • “A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease.” (#12)


The literature is replete with descriptions of the neurophysiological benefits of breathing regimes.

women breathing

Starting with Grossmann, Sahdra, and Ciarrochi (#9):

  • ‘Cardiac vagal tone (indexed via resting heart rate variability [HRV]) has been previously associated with superior executive functioning.”
  • “As hypothesized, in the self-distanced condition, each HRV indicator was positively related to prevalence of wisdom-related reasoning (e.g., prevalence of recognition of limits of one’s knowledge, recognition that the world is in flux/change, consideration of others’ opinions.”
  • “There was no relationship between these variables in the self-immersed condition.”

This is supplemented by the work of Gerritsen and Band (#7) to see what underlying physiology might be.  This applies specifically when “That breathing is regulated or attentively guided.”

  • “We propose a neurophysiological model that explains how these specific respiration styles could operate, by phasically and tonically stimulating the vagal nerve: respiratory vagal nerve stimulation (rVNS)”. In other words, they are talking about “changes in autonomic balance”.

If You Only Read One Article

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a great article by Christopher Bergland (#2) that not only gives a layman’s version of the scientific rationale, but also provides detailed, user-friendly directions.

The following are Bergland’s directions:

“There is a myriad of different breathing patterns you can use to improve HRV. That said, based on the latest research, practicing rVNS breathing via longer exhalations for just two minutes appears to be an easy way to hack the vagus nerve and calm one’s nervous system.”

“One gadget-free way to track the timing of your inhalation-to-exhalation breathing cycles per minute is to use a 4:8 ratio of four-second inhalations and eight-second exhalations. This breathing cycle takes 12 seconds which equates to five inhalation/exhalation cycles per minute. Based on road-tested outcomes, I really like the 4:8 ratio because it’s easy to use my right hand to count up to five with each digit and use the fingers on my left hand like an abacus to keep track of each one-minute cycle.”

Small Add-on

As you might imagine, there are variations on this theme that has been proposed. For example, one school of practice promotes a prescribed period to hold the breath between inhaling and exhaling.  “The “4-7-8 breathing technique” is a breathing pattern developed by Dr. Andrew Weil (#8) who is the founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. It is based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama, which helps practitioners gain control over their breathing.”

In any event, the procedure in detail (per #6):

  • empty the lungs of air
  • breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds
  • hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
  • exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
  • repeat the cycle up to 4 times

Incidentally, it seems the most critical aspect is the ratio, not the duration.


The above information is probably not relevant if your life in and out of business does not involve stress or decision-making.

Bibliography (in alphabetical order)

  1. Herbert Benson, Martha M. Greenwood, and Helen Klemchuk. “The Relaxation Response: Psychophysiologic Aspects and Clinical Applications” The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine (First published: March 1, 1975) DOI: 2190/376W-E4MT-QM6Q-H0UM
  2. Christopher Bergland – “Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve, Psychology Today, (published on May 9, 2019)
  3. Kyle J. Bourassa, John J.B. Allen, Matthias R. Mehl, and David A. Sbarra. “The Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure Following Marital Separation.” Psychosomatic Medicine (First published: May 8, 2017) DOI: 1097/PSY.0000000000000475
  4. Marcelo Campos, MD – Heart rate variability: A new way to track well-being , Harvard Health Publishing, (published on November 22, 2017)
  5. Marijke De Couck, Ralf Caers, Liza Musch, Johanna Fliegauf, Antonio Giangreco, and Yori Gidron. “How Breathing Can Help You Make Better Decisions: Two Studies on the Effects of Breathing Patterns on Heart Rate Variability and Decision-Making in Business Cases.”International Journal of Psychophysiology (First published online: March 1, 2019) DOI: 1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011
  6. Jenna Fletcher – How to use 4-7-8 breathing for anxiety, Medical News Today, (Published on February 11, 2019)
  7. Roderik J. S. Gerritsen and Guido P. H. Band. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (First published online: October 9, 2018) DOI: 3389/fnhum.2018.00397
  8. Ana Gotter – What Is the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique?, Healthline, (Published on April 20, 2018)
  9. Igor Grossmann, Baljinder K. Sahdra, and Joseph Ciarrochi. “A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (First published: April 8, 2016) DOI: 3389/fnbeh.2016.00068
  10. Bethany E. Kok, Kimberly A. Coffey, Michael A. Cohn, Lahnna I. Catalino, Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk, Sara B. Algoe, Mary Brantley, and Barbara L. Fredrickson. “How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.” Psychological Science (First published: May 6, 2013) DOI: 1177/0956797612470827
  11. Alli N McCoy and Yong Siang Tan. “Otto Loewi (1873–1961): Dreamer and Nobel Laureate” Singapore Medical Journal(First published: January 2014) DOI: 11622/smedj.2014002
  12. Gewnhi Park and Julian F. Thayer – From the heart to the mind: cardiac vagal tone modulates top-down and bottom-up visual perception and attention to emotional stimuli, Frontiers in Psychology, (published May 01, 2014)

Relevant Business Brain Model Articles:

  1. What Can Paying Attention to Your Breath Do for You? Mindfulness Impact on Mind-Body-Soul
  2. Can Your Vagus Nerve Stimulate Your Business Success

About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. The ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.