Small Choices, Big (Brain) Impact and Light, Slow, Deep Breathing
🤸♀️ Stretch 59
Your weekly Stretch, aiming to teach you something new about your brain & body in less than 15 minutes per week. Thoughts or feedback? Let me know!
I’m SO EXCITED. I’m training to be a certified breathwork instructor!
I’ve done a lot of self-exploration over the past few years, and nothing has helped me quiet down my mind and improve my focus as much as breathwork. Plus, I genuinely believe every single person can benefit from learning how to breathe better and how to use the breath as a performance tool (mentally, emotionally and physically.)
I’ll keep you posted on my plans but for now I’m cooking up ideas around blending breathwork and running. Imagine using your body to sharpen your mind—a concept I call "body-based productivity." Anyway, more details soon 😉
What are we talking about this week?
Small choices, big (brain) impact. A few ‘mental tricks’ to help you tap into the aMCC—your willpower and tenacity brain area.
Light, slow, deep breathing. Change your breathing pattern to create a state of clarity and calm.
🧠 SMALL CHOICES, BIG (BRAIN) IMPACT.
In Stretch 58, I introduced you to the anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC)—a key brain area that’s like the engine behind willpower and tenacity.
This brain area is very plastic. That means you have the ability to increase the size and activity by doing things you don't want to do (e.g. another round of burpees) or not doing things you want to do (finish the bag of Doritos.)
Regularly pushing yourself with small, trivial challenges increases your overall ability to tackle bigger, important ones.
I find this so cool to think about because for me, the issue with these small willpower challenges is I often think: “Why bother?” or “What’s the harm?”
And it’s true. One more round of burpees won’t make you healthy, just like polishing off that bag of crisps won’t suddenly make you unhealthy.
As Shane Parrish writes in The Small Steps of Giant Leaps:
“The ordinary choices that guarantee a strong future go unnoticed. There is no pat on the back for doing the right thing just as there is no slap on the wrist for doing the wrong thing.”
But what if you knew that with every single choice, however small, you’re tapping into that aMCC? Slowly but surely, you’re creating physical changes in your brain that will help you stick to your long-term goals and promises. Treat every choice as an opportunity to strengthen your mental resilience.
Here are a few ‘mind tricks’ you might find helpful to give you that final push to move or to resist:
The 5 Second Rule. If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move towards or away from whatever it is you’re thinking about within 5 seconds—or your brain will kill it. By acting quickly, you bypass your brain's natural tendency to avoid discomfort or change.
The Never Nothing Rule. If you really don’t feel like doing something, instead of completely talking yourself out of it, just do the absolute minimum you’re willing to do. The only rule is it can “never be nothing.” Instead of a 5k run, do 1k. And usually what you’ll find is that once you’re moving, you’ll do more than you set out to. Motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it.
Have a mantra. Use a simple mantra like “seek discomfort” to encourage yourself to get out of your comfort zone, as a reminder that feelings of discomfort are a sign of brain activity and progress!
I’m curious: do any of these techniques resonate? Or do you have your own that work well? Let me know!
💨 THE POWER OF LIGHT, SLOW, DEEP BREATHING
slow down your breathing
increase blood flow to your brain
calm down your thoughts
To make the right choices in the moment, however small, you need to have clarity of thought and you need to feel calm.
One of the best ways to do that is to change the way you breathe, even if only for a few minutes.
Yep, that's right. There's a specific way to breathe that increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to your brain.
When your brain is not getting enough oxygen, even for a short period, it becomes hyperexcitable and the neurons start firing all over the place. That leads to racing thoughts and trouble focusing.
In those moments, one of the best things you can do is to adjust your breathing in these 3 ways:
Breathe light. Take smaller breaths than you usually would. Make it so light that you can barely feel the air going in and out of your nose. You want to create a slight (but tolerable) feeling of air hunger.
Breathe slow. Inhale to a count of 4, exhale to a count of 6. (Add dramatic pauses between breaths for extra flair!) Slow this down so much that you can imagine the hairs in your nose not moving.
Breathe deep. Keep your chest still and breathe "low" into your belly, using your diaphragm. Imagine you’re breathing all the way down to your legs. But keep in mind that your chest should not be moving. (A deep breath doesn't mean taking a big gulp of air!)
Now, why does this work? Very simply put:
By focusing so intently on your breath, you're taking yourself out of your head—which is calming in and of itself.
But more importantly, there are several physiological effects.
By breathing less, you're balancing the oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in your body, leading to more efficient oxygenation of your tissues.
I’ll write about this in much more detail soon but in short: when you overbreathe, you expel too much CO2. Having sufficient levels of CO2 in your system is important for efficiently delivering oxygen to your cells and tissues. So by breathing less, you’re normalizing oxygen and CO2 levels.
Also, breathing slowly stimulates your vagus nerve—a long nerve that starts in your brain and travels through all your major organs.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating the body’s rest and digest functions. It initiates reactions like slowing down your heart rate, lowering blood pressure increasing digestion—reactions that allow for a calm, restorative state.
I encourage you to stop reading, grab your phone, set a timer for 3 minutes, close your eyes and put all your mental focus on breathing light, slow and deep.
I’d love it if you hit reply and let me know with one word how this made you feel 🤩