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Just breathe

Scott Taylor
Scott Taylor
- 7 min read

Momentum. Anyone who has raised investment will tell you it's one of the most important elements of a fundraising journey. Once you get momentum, everything starts to come together. Investors have a sixth-sense for confidence, a helpful byproduct of momentum. They start getting FOMO. And the dynamic where they once held the power, changes. They now shuffle to sign term sheets, ask less questions, and move faster. They know the round will soon be complete, with or without them.

A few years ago I raised funding for my startup. At the start of the round, I was about to go into a meeting that, if successful, would give it momentum. I was nervous. I didn't want to choke. There were thirty employees who were counting on me. And a mission and vision that was important.

I'd lost count of how many boardrooms I'd seen over the past few days, but the important thing was, I felt good. Good enough to acknowledge the aromatic concoction of freshly ground coffee, expensive wood and leather — something that had become the norm.

It was just me and my co-founder, the investor was running late.

"Great, more time to settle in, and get comfortable", I thought.

Powering on my laptop, connecting to my phone's hotspot, and opening Google Slides. A well practiced routine by now, almost automatic.

But this time something happened. Something terrible.

Maybe it was the coffee that morning. Or the lack of sleep. Or perhaps the subconscious acknowledgement of the mounting pile of day-to-day work that had taken a hit during the fundraise.

Whatever it was, I felt this wave consume me. Originating from centre of my stomach extending out to the very tips of fingers. It felt like electricity running through my veins. Palms sweaty, mind consumed.

"There's no way I can give the pitch like this."

Pulse elevated. Breathing shallow.

"Heart attack? Surely not?"
"Panic attack? More likely."

I'd experienced one before. This time it had reared its ugly head at the most inconvenient time. Unlike the meetings that had come before, ones that had put us on a path to momentum. There were now a few ways the next hour could pan out. With most of them not being great. I had to act quickly to have any sway over which it would be.

I could let my mind continue to race, try to power through, and give a sub-par presentation, all whilst visibly looking like I was in distress. This would risk the potential for investment. Alternatively, my co-founder could lead. But it would be strange for the CEO to not speak. Again, risking investment. Or I could try and get a handle on the panic attack. Easier said than done, as I'm sure anyone would who has ever experienced one, would agree.

"In for four" I told myself mentally, "Hold, two, three, four. And out: two, three, four".

Again.

"In for four," making sure to breathe deep from within, inhaling through my nose, "hold. Two, three, four.", "And out, two, three, four".

Sounds simple, even pathetic. But it's really not.

It had taken me years up until that point to realise the importance of the breath.

During a panic attack you will start breathing deeply, over-breathing or hyperventilating. This will cause you to accumulate extra air in your chest and diaphragm area that you don’t need. This is the reason you feel suffocated while you’re having a panic attack.

Eventually, this will cause pain because your chest is expanding beyond its limits and pushing on your rib cage.

During the fight or flight response, the body shuts off the digestive system because we don’t need it at that moment. This is why our appetite is reduced when we are anxious. The longer the food stays in the stomach the more acid will back up in your oesophagus. This can cause chest pain and a painful throat.

About 60% of panic attacks are accompanied by hyperventilation and many people suffering from anxiety over-breathe even when they think they are relaxed. The most important thing to understand about hyperventilation or over-breathing is that although we can feel as if we haven’t enough oxygen in our body, when the opposite is true.

Healthy breathing is when there is a steady balance between breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. You upset this balance when you hyperventilate by exhaling more than you inhale.

Everyone tends to think that breathing comes naturally and that there can’t be a wrong way of doing it.

Unfortunately, that’s not true.

There is a right way and a wrong way and it is essential that correct breathing is learned, understood and established.

An anxious body is not a relaxed body, which is why learning how to relax your body in any situation is a must. Understanding this was my 'get out of jail free' card. It's how I could start to take back control. It allowed me to stop the spiral.

At that moment the investor walked through the door. Crisis averted. This is just one example of the power of breathing, throughout my life I've come to understand and respect it more and more.

And I think you could benefit from it.

Understanding breathing is the key to self mastery

There is nothing more essential to our health and wellbeing than breathing. We breathe 25,000 times a day, and every breath has an impact on our anxiety levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.

There are exercises and approaches that you can use in times of need, like my example above. There are also times when breath can be used proactively, like that upon which meditation is focused. Finally there is simply the ability to breathe correctly. Something that most people have lost the ability to do. And this could severely impact both their physical and mental health.

Breathe through your nose, not your mouth

I would recommend reading James Nestor's "Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art". It's fascinating, making you want to finish it in a few sittings.

In it he explains that nearly half of all people are chronic mouth breathers and are chronically stressed and exhausted as a result.

Breathing through your nose can lower blood pressure, help maintain a steady heart rate, and even help with memory consolidation. In contrast, mouth breathing is the single biggest predictor of teeth cavities.

Mouthbreathing also causes the body to lose 40% more water. If you sleep with your mouth open because you have sleep apnea, or a blocked nose, you'll notice yourself waking up at night constantly parched and dry.

There was a report from the Mayo Clinic which found that Chronic insomnia, long assumed to be a psychological problem, is often a breathing problem. The millions of people who have chronic insomnia disorder and who are, right now, staring out bedroom windows, or at TVs, phones, or ceilings, can't sleep because they can't breathe.

Mouthbreathing makes you dumber. A recent Japanese study showed that rats who had their nostrils obstructed and were forced to breathe through their mouths developed fewer brain cells and took twice as long to make their way through a maze than nasal-breathing controls.

Another Japanese study in humans from 2013 found that mouthbreahing delivered a disturbance of oxygen to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with ADHD. Nasal breathing had no such effects.

The ancient Chinese were onto it as well. "The breath inhaled through the mouth is called 'Ni Ch'i, adverse breath,' which is extremely harmful," states a passage from the Tao. "Be careful not to have the breath inhaled through the mouth."

Inhaling through your nose can trigger different body hormones than if you breathe using your mouth.

Anxiety and shallow breathing are interlinked

People with panic or obsessive-compulsive disorders constantly have low carbon dioxide levels and a much greater fear of holding their breath. To avoid another attack, they breathe far too much and eventually become hyper-sensitised to carbon dioxide and panic if they sense a rise in this gas. They are anxious because they’re over-breathing. Over-breathing because they’re anxious.

Symmetrical inhales and exhales produces maximum benefit

The optimum amount of air we should take in at rest per minute is 5.5 litres. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath.

Exhaling slowly can help you relax

“But what was even more stunning was what breathing like this did to the subjects. Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency. The moment the subjects returned to spontaneous breathing or talking, their hearts would beat a little more erratically, and the integration of these systems would slowly fall apart. A few more slow and relaxed breaths, and it would return again.”

If you measure your heart when inhaling, you will find your heart speeds up. Then, as you exhale, your heart rate will slow down. Exhaling is a parasympathetic response that is essential for conserving energy. Parasympathetic responses slow down the body’s automatic response systems. As you inhale, your diaphragm lowers and pulls blood into the thoracic cavity. As you exhale, the blood flows back through the body and calms your mental state. As I mentioned before we tend to breathe quickly when we are anxious or stressed. When we breathe quickly, our lungs are only absorbing approximately one-quarter of the oxygen from our breaths. Then, the rest of the oxygen (and carbon dioxide) is exhaled.

Breathe less to live longer

The longest living animals have the lowest heart rates. Crucially, this low heart rate is associated with a lower respiration rate. Hence, the animals that breathe the least are living the longest. All across the animal kingdom, breathing and life span are in proportion. Elephants are some of the longest living animals and they only take four to five breaths per minute. Similarly, alligators only take one breath per minute. In comparison, dogs, cats, and mice take many more breaths per minute. Subsequently, they live much shorter lives than elephants and alligators. Humans sit somewhere in between elephants/alligators and cats/dogs for both breath rate and lifespan.

Breathwork is the use of breathe awareness and conscious breathing for healing and growth, personal awakening, and transformation in spirit, mind and body. It's a major skill set that high-performing and successful individuals have mastered - it's the secret ingredient that puts them exactly where they want to be.

Once our breathing is full and free, healthy and natural, once it is restored or raised to an optimal level, then it automatically becomes a therapeutic tool.

Afterword

I had skin cancer when I was aged 18, on my nose, meaning I had to have quite a few operations under general anaesthtic. This culminated in the airways in my nose not ever being quite the same. I think this certainly contributed to my panic attack, as I have to mostly get oxygen through my mouth – in the post above I've shown how detrimental it can be to overall health, and performance.

Further reading

Some articles and books to help you continue your learning:

mindset

Scott Taylor

Started and sold a few companies. My aim is to make sense of the world, constantly improve and become increasingly empathetic. Sharing what I learn along the way.