7 steps to improve breathing rhythm and reduce anxiety.
The problem is that most of us these days are disconnected from nature’s rhythms, spending our days in climate controlled homes, offices and cars, staying up late under electric lights and artificially boosting our energy with caffeine and sugar.
A healthy resting respiratory rate for an adult should ideally be between 8 and 14 breaths per minute.
But the average in this “age of anxiety” is creeping up closer to 20 breaths per minute.
This has a negative impact on our nervous system, keeping us in the “fight or flight” response and leading to chronic stress and adrenal fatigue.
At its most natural, the rhythm of the breath flows with an inhalation, exhalation, pause and repeat (known as “triangle breathing”). However, this pattern can become disrupted, particularly by a tendency to either hold the breath on the inhale whilst concentrating (a phenomenon known as “tech apnea”, used to describe the interrupting effect of modern technology on our breathing patterns) or by gasping for the next inhale without allowing ourselves to rest comfortably in the natural pause between the breaths (a symptom of our “more is better” culture).
In a future post, I’ll dive further into a new kind of apnea I’ll call walking apnea, which is essentially the same as sleep apnea or tech apnea, only that we are awake and sleepwalking through our day. But for now, I want to focus on the importance of our breathing rhythm, how to settle into your most natural state of breathing, and the accompanying benefits.
Poor posture and timing is the root cause.
From an anatomical perspective, our breathing mechanism should be coordinated, with all of our respiratory muscles (including the diaphragm, intercostals, abdominals and scalenes) working together in perfect harmony.
However, due to accumulated patterns of tension in the body-mind system, as well as poor posture, our breathing is less than optimal from a functional perspective, leading to inefficient breathing and a poor energy-to-effort ratio. More like a nervy opening night performance or dive bar jam session than a slickly-timed orchestral movement.
Beyond oxygenating our bodies, did you know that one of the secondary purposes of breathing is to act as a central pacemaker?
Breathing interacts with and influences the rhythms of almost every other physiological process, enabling our whole body-mind system to communicate, coordinate, and function more optimally.
The secret lies in a healthy diaphragm.
The diaphragm is the main breathing muscle and the primary driver of breathing rhythm. It acts as a sort of pump, powering the most obvious function of breathing, which is to sustain life by moving air in and out of the body.
For example, as the diaphragm moves up and down with each breath, it massages our internal abdominal organs, assisting the wave-like movement of food through our digestive system and pushing waste cells, toxins, and excess fluid through our lymphatic system for excretion.
The heart, sitting above the diaphragm, is also massaged by its pumping action, which affects the rhythmic flow of blood through our circulatory system as well as the movement of cerebrospinal fluid, removing waste products from the brain and helping our central nervous system work properly.
The breath is our body’s global metronome.
The breath impacts almost every system within our bodies. It helps align the disparate rhythms from our nervous system, our heart, our digestive and circulatory system, and beyond. It impacts how we perceive and interact with the environment.
Our breathing rhythm has a regulating effect on the nervous system and heart rate via the vagus nerve, which acts as a sort of accelerator or brake on the body depending on whether we are breathing in or out. So we can intentionally change our breathing rhythm in order to energize, relax, or rebalance.
Indeed, recent neuroscientific research has shown that the act of breathing exerts a substantive, rhythmic influence on perception, emotion, and cognition, largely through the direct modulation of rhythmic electrical activity in the brain.
In other words, breathing is a fundamental rhythm of brain function, acting as a sort of global metronome for brain waves moving throughout the brain and playing an important role in aligning the rhythms of the brain with those of the body and the outer world.
Case study: extreme rhythmic breathing.
Practitioners in the school of Swara Yoga plan their day depending on the relative opening and closing of their nostrils.
Blood flow shifts back and forth between the nostrils in an “ultradian rhythm” that takes around 90-120 minutes, meaning that one side is always more open than the other. This affects the functioning of the brain, therefore how we interpret and experience the world.
When the left nostril is more open, the right hemisphere of the brain (relational focus and connection) is generally more dominant, making it a good time to be creative or spend time with the family.
When the right nostril is more open, the left hemisphere (narrow focus and attention to detail) is generally more dominant, making it a good time to get through specific tasks on our to-do list.
Manageable rhythmic breathing: How to for basic humans.
If this sounds a little extreme, here’s a more manageable suggestion.
By consciously breathing at the coherent or resonant rate of six breaths per minute, we can breathe in a way that best supports both the heart and the brain by maximizing the rhythmic harmonization between breathing, heart rate, and neural activity.
Breathing in this way throughout our day will improve circulation, balance the nervous system, and lead to a physiological and psychological state of relaxation.
This heart-coherent rhythm also happens to match one of the primary resonant frequencies of the Earth’s geomagnetic field, returning us to our more natural state of being and belonging.
Key takeaway: conscious breathing is the best self-care.
So the key takeaway is this: our ability to consciously control our breathing rhythm (and subsequently regulate the other rhythms of the body-mind), makes the breath a central pillar of self-care.
If coherent breathing sounds like too much effort…
then remember that simple breath awareness can have profound results.
When uncomfortable feelings begin to flood the system, just paying mindful attention to the regular and rhythmic waves of the breath coming in and going out can provide an anchor in stormy emotional seas.
Client story: nervous system flexibility.
Whenever I work with clients with significant trauma history or PTSD, whether that’s from sexual abuse, living in a war-torn country, or working in an ER, I generally find that the most helpful breathing technique over the long term is coherent or resonant breathing.
With such clients, the problem is usually that their nervous system has become stuck in either the “on” (“fight/flee”) or “off” (“freeze”) position, as a result of the trauma.
By practicing coherent breathing daily, extending and balancing the inhales and exhales to an even count of five seconds in and five seconds out, this improves the flexibility of their nervous system and empowers them to respond to the ups and downs of life with more resilience.
7 easy steps to help practice coherent breathing.
Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed for several minutes. Softer light or darkness can help you to relax. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
Breathe in and out through the nose using the diaphragm (“belly breathing”). Feel the lungs expand. If you are only feeling your upper chest expand, you need to soften your belly and deepen your inhale.
Start progressively, breathing consciously and in a relaxed way for 3 seconds in and 3 seconds out, until it feels comfortable.
Try to ensure that the breaths are smooth and steady across both the inhale and the exhale and the transitions are smooth with no pause.
Then move on to breathing for 4 seconds in and 4 seconds out and progress at your own pace up to a rhythm of 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. Taller people might want to breathe even more slowly (6 seconds in and 6 seconds out).
Aim to practice for around 15-20 minutes in a single sitting, or for 5 minutes a few times per day depending on what best fits your schedule.
Once you feel comfortable, you can apply it in a wide range of situations without requiring a great deal of focus. Try it while cooking, driving, walking, or making coffee or tea.
FAQ: What is the best breathing rhythm to use?
The answer is: IT DEPENDS.
Functional or optimal breathing is flexible, adaptive, and responsive, giving us the ability to match our state to the task at hand.
For example, we might want to double up on the inhale to access more energy.
Or use 4-7-8 breathing for relaxation and sleep
Or make a routine of coherent or box breathing for balance.
Most importantly, give yourself permission to experiment and try to really feel what works best for you. The aim should be to relax and have fun with it.