Editor’s Note: Join Dana Santas for a four-part series to learn how you can breathe better to live better. Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.” Here’s Part IV.

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In Part I of this series, I introduced you to the concept of breathing as a superpower, capable of impacting almost every aspect of your body and mind. In Parts II and III, I shared how you can use your breathing to move better and sleep better. In this final installment, we look at breathing’s role in stress management and concentration. I also share breathing exercises to help you achieve a more focused, calm state of being.

Breathing is one of the most effective ways to manage stress because it leverages your own physiology and requires no special tools. In as little as 90 seconds, deep breathing can stimulate a physiological “relaxation response” that tones down your body’s “fight-or-flight” response by inhibiting stress hormone production, lowering blood pressure and decreasing heart rate.

In short, how you breathe matters; the quality of your breathing pattern affects your ability to mitigate stress. In fact, a dysfunctional breathing pattern can fuel your stress response, even when you are trying to use your breathing to calm down.

Read on to learn how to avoid a faulty pattern and optimize your breathing for stress relief, calm and focus, the same way elite athletes like former World Cup champion skier Lindsey Vonn do.

Overbreathing and stress: A vicious cycle

When we’re stressed, we are often told to take a deep breath.

What happens when you do this?

If you’re like most people, you put the bulk of your effort into taking a big inhale and your exhale is an afterthought.

Unfortunately, focusing too much on inhalations without fully exhaling can lead to overbreathing: inhaling more than exhaling, akin to hyperventilation. Overbreathing activates your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, which, in turn, activates your stress response and engages rapid, shallow breathing. Consequently, overbreathing is part of a vicious cycle with stress.

Because overbreathing doesn’t allow carbon dioxide levels to rise enough for proper oxygen exchange in the bloodstream, you feel like you aren’t getting enough oxygen, which leads you to try to inhale more. The irony is that instead of inhaling, you actually need to exhale and pause for carbon dioxide levels to rise enough to be able to use the oxygen from your inhales.

Extend the pause between breaths

The carbon dioxide you exhale has an unfair reputation as being merely a waste product, when it’s actually essential for oxygen exchange and regulation of your nervous system.

When you get stuck in a chronic overbreathing pattern, your nervous system becomes overly sensitive to rises in carbon dioxide. As a result, your nervous system almost immediately sounds an alarm to inhale whenever you pause between breaths. Left unchecked, this perpetuates the cycle of overbreathing, fueling your stress response, which feeds more overbreathing.

To check in with your nervous system’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide levels, try this:

Inhale gently and then exhale fully, but not forcefully. At the end of your exhale, pause without breathing and count in your mind how many seconds it takes until you feel the need to breathe in again. Don’t wait until you feel panicked; pause only until your body prompts you to inhale.

How long were you able to pause before inhaling?

You should be able to pause for at least 20 seconds, and for elite endurance athletes, that number is closer to double, according to Patrick McKeown, author of “The Oxygen Advantage.”

The sensation you feel urging you to inhale comes from chemoreceptors at the base of your brain stem designed to monitor carbon dioxide levels and signal to your brain when you need to breathe. If that sensation came up more quickly than 20 seconds, it indicates that you are overbreathing to some extent.

In previous articles in this series, we covered the benefits of nasal breathing versus mouth breathing for both enhanced