Breathing awareness and finding calm through anxiety with Rob Wilson


Key Takeaways:

1. Self-regulation through diaphragmatic breathing. Create an efficient breathing protocol to make breathing efficient to the body.
2. Improve carbon dioxide capacity. Reduce stress and improve athletic performance.
3. Breath awareness, position, transitions.
4. Calm the anxiety and panic attacks through breathing. Learning body awareness of when the attacks will come and how to prevent full anxiety.

Podcast Summary

Developing breath awareness can help change one’s physiology from overworked to a state of calm, starting with diaphragmatic breathing which is incredibly important.

Rob Wilson, co-founder of Art of Breath speaks to DTS Fitness Education Director of Education Ben McDonald about the importance of self-regulation through breathing and transitioning from stress to calmness.

1) Self-regulation through diaphragmatic breathing

“You can never not use your diaphragm when you breathe. There’s no choice because with every breath, your diaphragm gets used,” says Wilson. “If your elbow bends, your bicep is involved – it’s just a matter to what degree and that’s just another action connected with other joints and tissues around the elbow. It’s the same thing with our diaphragm.”

The lungs cannot inflate on their own. As the diaphragm contracts, it opens up the rib cage and that change in pressure creates a vacuum that will fill the lungs up.

“If your diaphragm stops working, you die; so it’s always functioning. What’s really important about the diaphragm and learning to use it as a skill, is that it is one of two ways that connects us to our brain stem deep reaction. What I mean by that is it affects our autonomous nervous system,” explains Wilson. “Normal processes like breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, are continually self-regulated by our physiology – it’s responding to our internal and external environment all the time. Our rate and breathe are constantly shifting – it we’re speaking it changes – but the diaphragm control, for the most part, living in that brain stem it’s below our conscious level of awareness.”

Though one cannot decide how much blood the heart can pump or the size of one’s blood vessels, breathing is one thing that can be adjusted daily.

“Breath is something we have access to it 24 hours a day, seven days a week for our entire lives barring severe illness of death,” says Wilson. “That’s a really powerful tool because let’s say for example I’m having a situation where I’m not handling stressful scenarios in my life the way I want to. It could be really hard to deal with this stuff just using mental tools. If you have a tool that grabs onto your physiology and grabs on to something that is really real that could change how you feel in your body, then that gives you a sense of control over things that seem like a dust cloud in your brain.”

Breathing is a doorway the opens up deep physiological processes that are normally outside of the conscious level of awareness and they have a tremendous cascade of influences over how the body deals with stress, manages energy and fatigue, and posture, he adds. Likewise, the cascade of benefits can become a cascade of detriments if it’s dysfunctional.

2) Improve carbon dioxide capacity

So how does one decrease stress and improve athletic performance?

According to Wilson, the answer is increasing one’s carbon dioxide tolerance because it has the biggest crossover physiologically. He notes there are many ways one can improve CO2 tolerance including works from Patrick McKeown, information from free diving work, and yoga.

“All of those have that touch point of improving the body’s tolerance for carbon dioxide. What we have seen is that both stress reactivity improves and athletic performance increases with increased tolerance for carbon dioxide,” says Wilson.

Wilson is currently working with his co-founder Brian MacKenzie to create a non-profit organization called Human, Health and Performance Foundation to support research into these areas like anxiety and performance.

“Our primary focus is understanding carbon dioxide tolerance better and putting it under scientific scrutiny,” he says. “Thus far in preliminary work, in scientific research studies and anecdotal work, we’ve seen improvements in radical changes with both anxiety and stress reduction and enhancements in sports performance.”

3) Breathe awareness, body position and transitions

Breathing doesn’t necessarily coincide with sitting for hours meditating, though a formal position at some point of the practice would see the most benefit. Ultimately, most people aren’t aware of how they are breathing.

“As coaches and trainers, we put parameters on other things like how people move, like how many squats we do – so we’re going to do 100 squats but if your knees cave in we’re going to take a break. So we maintain some semblance of quality, but we don’t maintain that with how we breath,” says Wilson. “Put some criteria around how people breathe. For example, in your warmup today you’re not allowed to open your mouth. I want you to be aware of any time you’re working so hard that your mouth is open. That helps people tune into their physiology.”

Once breathing awareness is set, one must pay attention to position – how a person is moving, can they control their diaphragm when working out, do they have access to a full breath, or is it stuck at the top neck and chest position?

“In the perspective of breathing, I think we can all fundamentally agree that in order for our body to process energy, we have to have air coming in,” says Wilson. “What we do most of the time to increase our access to energy is work harder and work more, but we don’t go to the fundamental component of the system that actually delivers this energy.”

Using the analogy of a car, Wilson compares it to driving it more and more and increasing the size of the gas tank but not actually considering fuel efficiency or how well the fuel can get into the system. What needs to be done is remove the kink and make the fuel system more efficient.

“With breathing, if my basic shapes are really good and I can expand my rib cage and my lungs, I don’t need to work as hard, regardless of what shape or position I’m in, then I will be more effective at processing energy and getting rid of waste regardless of environmental stressors I put on it,” he says. “If your rib cage can expand and your lungs can take more oxygen, that’s more volume of oxygen going into the system.”

When awareness and positioning is set, learn how to transition from training to slow breathing and getting the heart rate down for a few minutes.

“This could be standing there, sitting on a box or bench, or lying on the ground, but to purposefully get them to breathe and to slow the exhale over time,” says Wilson. “It’s a simplistic answer but with each breath out to exhale a little slower than the inhale, and to progressively increase the time of the exhale over the course of the two minutes.”

4) Calm the anxiety and panic attacks through breathing

Teaching the transition has multiple benefits including helping a person transition from what they were doing to the environment they will be going back to. The trainer can also start insinuating that training is stress and you can transition from stress at any time. This then becomes an applicable skill.

“Let’s say you have an argument with your boss and you notice your body feels similar to when you’ve finished training. Your heart rate is up and your armpits are sweating. Instead of taking off and immediately sharing your frustrations with everyone, you’re going to take two minutes and do the same protocol of breathing in your car and transition,” explains Wilson. “On the fundamental level, your physiological response to stress is the same. So you start to create a better relationship with purposefully transitioning from states of stress reactions to states of calm alertness, which is a really important skill.”

Finding a breathing protocol that will work for you that makes you feel how you want to feel. It should be a drill you can use when you’re not in a controlled environment. Consistency is more important than anything else.

A study done by neurologist Dr. Jose Herrero focused on severe epileptic patients who had seizures that were so impairing they had cranial implants with a constant read on their brain waves.

“What would happen is if the noise and brain waves look like a seizure was coming on, it would interrupt it with an electrical charge,” says Wilson. “They have constant supervision and what they found by accident initially is that just asking patients to take some agency over their breathing, not a protocol or yoga medication, just focus on their breathing, it organized their brain wave activity immediately.”

The patients had no experience and would be considered to be in a deficit position, but by focusing on their breathing there was a shift in their brain waves.

“Breathing is a fantastic tool to disarm anxiety and panic attacks early. As you get better at breathing, you’re able to catch it earlier and earlier before it becomes this mess of unmanageable, chaotic thing in your mind,” adds Wilson. “It’s like if you’re an athlete or someone who has been in a physical practice for long, you are tuned in to what your body is capable of or isn’t. When your body gets really close to an old injury you go, ‘Oh, this is how my back feels before I do that thing that makes me not train, I better back off. That’s because you have a lot of training and you associate that feeling with the resulting behaviour.”

The same situation applies with breathing in a different context. When a person can understand they are going to have a panic or anxiety attack, they can change the outcome.

“It doesn’t mean if I’m a 10, I’ll drop down to one and fall asleep. It means if you’re at a 10, it’ll bring you to an eight. If you do it a little longer, it might bring you down to a seven and you hang out around a seven. But seven is better than a 10 where you’re freaking out,” he says.
Breathing is this potent tool that’s just waiting for all of us to take advantage of and it’s free, concludes Wilson.

Resources and References from the Podcast

Art of Breath:

Health, Human and Performance Foundation, non-profit: