Breath - 3 Years Later

Breath - 3 Years Later

Just about 3 years ago I read a book called "Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art", By James Nestor. It was an interesting read and the lessons learned I was able to apply to my daily routine right away. I've recently been thinking about it again.

Think back for a second. What was your life like in the Spring/Summer of 2020?

I was "working from home" and so was my wife. My wife works for a pretty big company involved in sports and entertainment. There were no sports being played in the Spring of 2020. So to say that her workload was significant as they scrambled to figure out how to not go out of business, is an understatement.

For those that don't know this about me, I'm not a full time podcast host / blogger / financial wellbeing enthusiast. In my 9 - 5, I am a financial planner. On March 12th of 2020, the S&P 500 dropped 9.5%. That was the worst single day drop in over 30 years. On March 13th the world shut down. No going into the office, no daycare for the kids. No seeing GG & Papa for a while. Getting groceries might kill you.

As the market dropped so did my income. What increased, almost inversely was the anxiety of my clients and I. My days became this bizarre combination of things familiar things that felt extremely foreign:

"Working": Meant mornings watching market futures and talking to my partner about what was happening and how we might continue to act on behalf of our clients. Then we'd get on the phone or zoom with clients throughout the day. Mostly reassuring everyone that we'd be okay. Even though I believed it whole heartedly, there was a big part of my brain reminding me daily that "You've never seen anything like this before". The market would close at 4 pm, giving my anxiety a little "breather". A pause if you will to digest the day's news.

By May the market was in full recovery, but the worst of the pandemic was just getting started. We were left to reconcile how the market would continue to make new highs as tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people died and huge portions of the economy were still in full shutdown.

And then magically at roughly 5 pm everyday, I just snapped my fingers and became Dad again!!!

"Daycare Worker or Dad?": As I mentioned before, my wife and the rest of the people at her company where in full out blitz mode. She was in meetings all day. Luckily I had a little more flexibility and could spend more time then she could throughout the day with my 3 and recently turned 1 year old. My youngest still took a nap during the day and my 3 year old learned real quickly how to find Moana on the Roku remote by himself. So we got a bit of a break midday but that was it. The rest of the time we were left making a decision...

"Am I being a good parent, or am I trying to do well at my job?"

Honestly, most days I felt like I was failing at both.

"Husband": Let me tell you, anxiety + exhaustion look really sexy at the end of the day! Luckily my wife and I have a great relationship and we supported one another as best we could. But date night suddenly looked at lot different to say the least. We needed to figure out new ways to spend quality time together. For us that was rewatching Madmen and drinking old fashioneds most nights!

During all this I found "Breath". I encourage everyone to read it. It was a really interesting look at the science of how we breath and how that has evolved over time. Turns out we are worse breathers today then over before.

You may have heard of the term "Mouth Breather" , used in derogatory way referring to someone who isn't intelligent. But apparently we are evolving as humans to breath more often through our mouths, and that's really bad for your health. In addition to mouth breathing, the other routines and habits we fall into as human beings has led us to become shallow, inefficient breathers all around.

In the book Nestor highlights that chronic shallow breathing can contribute to a range of health issues, including increased anxiety, stress, and high blood pressure. He explains how shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to a cascade of physiological responses associated with the fight-or-flight response. Over time, this can contribute to a heightened stress response, poor oxygenation, and negative impacts on overall health.

Where I really related to it was when I learned that during periods of stress or intense concentration, people may inadvertently alter their breathing patterns. This can involve shallow or irregular breathing, or even holding your breath for short periods. He suggests that those short periods can be for longer then 30 seconds when we read our email!

When I read that and thought about it, I realized I was guilty. Not only was I catching myself not breathing, but I was also grinding my teeth. Even though things continued to get better as the days and months of the pandemic wound on, I was continuing to carry around this "pit" in the middle of my torso. I realized then that the stress of everything I described above was now showing up somewhere between my belly button and the bottom of my rib cage on a daily basis. It's like someone is taking a big squeeze of my insides and won't let go.

Being aware of this gave me a place to start trying to unwind it. And I found quite a bit of relief right away when I started paying attention to my breath. I recognize the feeling more quickly now and I have something I can do to try to alleviate it.

Throughout the book the author is exploring different techniques related to breathing and research is starting to show clearly the ability of controlled breathing exercises to relieve stress and anxiety. And lowering stress and anxiety can go a long way in helping improve our wellbeing.

Here's one of the many studies that pop up when you Google "Deep Breathing and Axiety Study".

Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing... : JBI Evidence Synthesis
sychological stress can result in anxiety, depression, heart disease, cancer, immunologic conditions and death. There is a high cost associated with the treatment of stress related health conditions in the United States and worldwide. Many treatments are pharmacologic and cannot be self-initiated. T…

"Although there were limitations across the studies, such as sample size, and length and duration of the intervention over time... the studies demonstrated that diaphragmatic breathing had a positive effect on lowering physiological and psychological stress."

I'm not qualified to asses this or any other study for it's technical merits. However, there does seem to be a significant amount research out there all pointing in the direction of deep diaphragmatic breathing being good for you.

The lockdowns and COVID in general felt like one big traumatic event that we all experienced together. Having some tools in your tool box to deal with stress and anxiety when they pop up can be really useful.

This all came flooding back to me a few weeks back. I was about to take the CFP exam and had been locked away for a few weeks. Limiting my time to basically my wife, kids, client work and studying. I was on track and feeling okay about how I was juggling all the things I had on my plate, at least the important ones.

Then my aunt passed away unexpectedly. My plans were turned on their head.

It wasn't "Lockdown 2.0" but the stress was the same. How am I going to manage everything and also try to show up and be a supportive Son and Brother to my family?

It wasn't easy and I often caught myself holding my breath. So I did my best to pay attention to that.

It didn't make it easier, it didn't change my circumstances, but at least this time I had something to go back to. I could take a few minutes a day to do some breathing exercises or even just take a few deep breaths.

And it helped.


"Breath" by James Nestor is a book about the evolution of breathing and sheds light on some interesting, if not scary, research into the negative impacts of breathing incorrectly. He also introduces techniques and concepts to explore regarding how to improve your breathing and lower stress and anxiety.

You should check it out.

There is A LOT of information on line about breath, breath work and the science behind all of this. But here's a link to Nestor's website with video's explaining some of the more common examples:

Instructional Videos — MRJAMESNESTOR

I personally try to remember to "Box Breath" or practice something like the "8-4-7" method once or twice a day. Both seem to help me get rid of that pit in my stomach that creeps up when I'm stressed and keeps me from breathing deeply.

I find myself "clenching" a lot when I work with clients and especially when presenting and having to do a lot of the talking. But breath exercises help with that a lot.

If I stay aware of my breath and give myself a few minutes to focus on it, I feel better.