Deep Breathing is the Ultimate Self-Control

A self-controlled man exhaling smoke

Stress disrupts a physical process as fundamental to life as breathing. When human beings get stressed, their breathing shortens. Stress can owe to immediate circumstances or unresolved emotional issues from the past. We’ve all experienced the stress of anger. Whenever someone lashes out in anger, or represses anger at a subconscious level, the anger creates an energetic wall that prevents the deep flow of oxygen. Chronic stress can lead to a “heightened” state of being that is physically and psychologically uncomfortable. And the negative emotion that drives it, whether or not it occupies an individual’s conscious awareness, interferes with focus and colors that individual’s world with negativity. On the other hand, freedom from emotional blocks promotes deep breathing. Deep breathers can focus, think clearly, and act with intention. Deep breathers are capable of putting out the best version of themselves.

Deep breathing is evidence of emotional self-control, but it can also be utilized as a technique to increase it. Deep breathing is practiced by Navy SEALS, veterans, and meditators around the world to foster calm and control in every situation. It’s design is to promote the natural deep breathing characteristic of a mind at ease. There are a number of exercises that involve holding the breath and counting at different intervals. You can find these on Google or YouTube. What works best for me is simply reminding myself to breathe deeply throughout the day. The only thing required to breathe deeply is conscious awareness. It works when an individual experiencing a harmful emotional impulse, like anger, decides instead to stand their ground by breathing deeply in the impulse. If the individual is successful, they remain in control and the impulse calmly passes by. It is important to keep in mind that it is not the breath itself that resolves the impulse, it is the individual’s determination not to let the impulse take control of their being. Deep breathing fosters this determination by serving as a conscious reminder to stay grounded and by subconsciously communicating that the impulse is not worth getting worked up about.

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.

Proverbs 25:28

Shallow breathers can be found all around the world, but are especially common in stressed-out societies like the US. When they begin a breath-work routine, the emotional blockages interfering with their breathing often rear their ugly head. Shallow breathers may experience anger, sadness, or fear. If this happens to you, see it as an opportunity to process unresolved issues with the end goal in mind of restoring natural deep breathing patterns. Max Strom, a global practitioner of breath-work for over two decades, gave a Ted Talk entitled “Breathe to Heal.” In it, he tells the story of a CEO who was able to process his brother’s loss through the use of deep breathing and overcome major anxiety issues. Check it out.

Teaching people how to breathe led me to a discovery: there is a tremendous relationship between breath — the lungs — and grief. So I want to tell you a story. This happened last year.

I gave a talk to about 50 CEOs about happiness, breath, anxiety, et cetera. And after the talk, I left the building, went down to the sidewalk to wait for a taxi. One of the CEOs followed me out, and he said, “Look, I’m 58 years old, and I’ve started having panic attacks for the first time in my life, and when you’re a CEO, having panic attacks doesn’t work. You can’t sit in a board meeting and suddenly feel your neck get stiff, and a splitting headache come on, and you want to run screaming out of the room.” He says, “I can’t have this. What should I do?”

I said, “Well, when did these panic attacks start?”

He said, “Six months ago.”

So what was my next logical question? Exactly. “What happened six months ago?”

He said, “My brother died.”

“And you were close?” I said.

He said, “Yes, very.”

“And you’re a workaholic, aren’t you?”

He smiled and said yes.

“And after the funeral, you went right back to work, didn’t you?”

He said yes.

I said, “You don’t have an anxiety issue, you don’t have a panic attack issue, you have a grief issue. You haven’t grieved the death of your brother. Now when you suppress grief, which you’ve learned to do — and you and I have learned to do –if you keep suppressing it, and you layer it, as new grief events happen in your life, it comes out in another way, it comes out as anxiety.” I said, “Your anxiety, your panic attacks are because of your grief.”

He said, “What should I do?”

I said, “Come to my workshop tomorrow downtown, I’ll show you some breathing exercises.”

He said, “Breathing exercises!?”

I said, “Just come.”

So he did. He wrote me two months later, and he said, “No panic attacks. They’ve stopped completely. But I have been feeling grief, and I realized you were right, I did need to grieve my brother.”

As you can see, the breath is a powerful channel of emotional energy and control. Anyone in control of their breath is in control of their life. For more context and a guided deep breathing exercise, I recommend the entire TedTalk linked to above.


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