Taking law school one breath at a time

By: Chad Noreuil
Clinical Professor of Law at ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law


With all of the stress and technological stimulation our students go through, I’m always looking for a way to slow them down and refocus their perspective.  At the end of every class I share with my students “Two Minutes of Zen,” and one of the more popular ones seems to be what I call, Law School . . . One Breath at a Time.  Here is how it goes: 

Your breath is, quite literally, the most important aspect of your life.  Without breath, there would be no life: yet, the breath is one of the things too often taken for granted.  We rarely pay attention to our breath, but doing so can greatly benefit our lives. 

Foremost, taking focused, deep breaths has numerous health benefits.  Foremost, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to reset and recharge your energy.  Additionally, taking deep breaths helps to deliver bursts of fresh oxygen to the body’s tissues and organs—especially the lungs.  Research shows that focused, deep breaths can lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and promote healthier digestion.  

 Deep breathing also sends fresh oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to relax.  You probably don’t even realize the tension you hold in your shoulders and neck as you move throughout the day—especially when hunched over and reading hours upon hours of cases.  Taking deep breaths allows these muscles to fully relax.  Try it and you will notice the soothing, sinking feeling in your upper body—and your neck and shoulders will thank you for the tension release.  

Intentionally taking deep breaths can also produce a calming effect on your mental health.  Conscious breathing—deliberately being aware of inhaling and exhaling— brings you into the present moment.  Being present instantly lowers your stress level because it prevents you from being upset about the past or anxious about the future.  In this regard, your breath plays a key role in your brain’s ability to combat stress and relax.  Generally speaking, stress originates from your thoughts, and when you focus on your breath, you are able to check out of those stress-inducing thoughts.  

Your breath can also be a key factor in “resetting” your day.  It often seems that if you start off having a bad day, things snowball and more and more negative things pile up.  When this happens, your anxiety can spike, your heart rate can increase, your palms can get sweaty, and you can lose your ability to focus.  But this is an easy phenomenon to check out of: you can physiologically reset your system (and your entire day) by pausing and taking six deep breaths. 

Literally, if you just close your eyes and take six deep inhales and exhales, you can reset your system, your day, and your mindset.  This should only take about one minute (which is about five seconds for each inhale and five seconds for each exhale).  Once you have reset your system with deep breathing, you’re now in a position to choose better feeling thoughts to regulate any stress you had been experiencing. 

On a related note, you have probably noticed that you have many types of breathing patterns.  In fact, every emotion we experience has a corresponding breathing pattern.  What this means is that if you can control your breath, you can control your emotions.  And if you can control your emotions, you can control your life—or at least you can control the way you respond to everything that happens in your life.  

Finally, conscious breathing can also increase the brain’s ability to focus.  With all of the technological stimulation we experience every day, the average attention span has decreased by 50% in the past decade.  If we think of the brain as a muscle, we can literally strengthen areas of the brain related to focus and concentration by practicing focused breathing.  Moreover, studies now show that deep breathing through the nose stimulates the hippocampus, which controls memory. 

With so many benefits, why wouldn’t you take time throughout your day to just . . . breathe?  Law school can be tough, but it’s a lot easier if you go through it one focused breath at a time. 

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