Why You Need to Change The Way You Breathe
Modern Life As We Know It
Life in modern society has given human beings a wealth of advantages. Advancements in science, manufacturing, agriculture, medicine and technology have made our lives both longer and easier. Access to information and services is virtually limitless. We're able to communicate and stay connected to our personal networks, our jobs and the world in general on a scale that would have been unimaginable just a few generations ago. Unfortunately, there are some negative side-effects of all those technological advancements. While we're living longer and suffer from fewer diseases that were previously incurable, our collective level of health and fitness has declined steadily over the last fifty years. This trend is, in large part, due to chronic exposure to stress. While stress is, unfortunately, an intrinsic part of life, chronic stress does not need to be. There is a simple, yet very effective technique that can minimize its effects. It’s called coherent breathing.
Chronic stress has pervasive effects on your mood, energy level, and your overall health. Those effects, in turn, significantly reduce your motivation. When you don’t feel well physically, when you feel sad, or depressed, or stressed, and you have low energy, your motivation for just about everything (except maybe for getting sleep) is diminished. Unfortunately, you don’t notice it (or at least don’t think about it too often) because the way you live your life is what's normal for you. For most people, you don’t know what it’s like to live without chronic stress, because it’s always there.
Your nervous system
To understand the effects of chronic stress, you need to have a basic understanding of your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Don’t worry, I won’t get too technical here. Your ANS monitors and controls all of your body’s automatic functions, like your breathing, heartbeat, digestion, immune system, body temperature, and everything else that keeps your body’s “machinery” working without you having to think about any of it. The ANS has two primary branches, known as the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems. There’s actually a third branch, known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), which resides primarily in your small intestine, but I’m not going to discuss it here.
Neither the sympathetic nor parasympathetic system is inherently good or bad. They both serve a vital purpose for your body's functioning and survival. However, spending too much time in either mode can cause problems. Activation of these two systems is not a discrete, on-or-off arrangement. Instead, you can think of them like a balance scale. As one end of the scale goes up, the other end goes down a corresponding amount. In the same way, as the sympathetic nervous system ramps up, the parasympathetic system turns down an equivalent amount, and vice versa.
Your body responds to its environment and maintains its long-term health best when your ANS is able to stay in balance most of the time. Unfortunately, most people spend the majority of their lives in sympathetic mode.
Your sympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as your "fight or flight" system, because it's responsible for preparing your body to respond to stressful and dangerous situations. The SNS is designed to help you deal with the life-or-death situations that were common thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, your sympathetic system doesn’t understand that the person arguing with you at work or the nasty traffic during your commute isn’t actually a life-threatening situation. So, it responds in the same way as it would to being attacked; by pumping your bloodstream full of stress hormones like cortisol.
Those hormones help your body react to stressful situations by directing its limited resources to the appropriate areas (like your muscles), while diverting resources from other parts of your body, like your vital organs. On a short-term basis, that response is appropriate and even a good thing. However, when your body stays in that state for extended periods of time, it does damage to your organs, including your heart. To make matters worse, your body's tendency to stay in fight or flight mode is compounded by the fact that your sympathetic system is artificially agitated by things that are very common in western society, like caffeine and processed sugar.
The parasympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as your "rest and digest" system, because it’s responsible for healing, recovery, digestion, and your immune system.
Coherent breathing and heart rate variability
One of the simplest ways you can achieve (and even maintain) balance in your nervous system is to practice what’s called coherent breathing. Coherent breathing is a technique that affects something called your heart-rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measure of the minute fluctuations in the speed of your heartbeat.
When you look at your fitbit or check your heart rate by counting the number of beats per minute (typically somewhere around 70 for most people at rest), that number is an average of the “speed” that your heart is pumping at during that minute. But the speed of your heartbeat actually makes tiny, almost imperceptible fluctuations every second. Your nervous system is designed to work that way, so your heart can respond to the needs of your body in real time, as it receives input from your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
You can think of your heart rate fluctuations like your average driving speed. Let’s say you're driving on the highway, and you travel 70 miles in one hour. That means your average speed during that hour was 70 miles/hr. But as you know, it does not mean you drove at exactly 70 mph for the entire hour (at least that’s highly unlikely). At any one time, you were likely to be driving either slightly above or slightly below 70 mph, such that your average speed was 70 mph for the hour. It’s the same with your heart rate.
Your HRV at any given time is affected by a variety of factors, including what you're doing at the time, your age, your diet, your overall fitness level, and how much stress you’re experiencing. Your HRV naturally decreases as you age, but there are ranges that are generally considered healthy for your age. In general terms, though, higher HRV is better than lower. I’ve included links to some resources on this topic below if your want to learn more.
When you breathe in, your diaphragm and rib muscles help pull air into the lungs by expanding your chest cavity. Because your heart is also located inside your chest cavity, when this happens, it releases pressure on your lungs and heart. When you exhale, the opposite happens. Those same muscles contract, increasing the pressure on your lungs and heart. This rhythmic alternation between contraction and relaxation creates pressure waves in your heart and your entire circulatory system. That process is called your thoracic pump.
When the rhythm of your thoracic pump and your heartbeat are in sync, in technical speak, the graphs of those two signals are said to be coherent, hence the name coherent breathing, because it enables that coherence.
When you practice coherent breathing, your thoracic pump reduces the amount of work your heart has to do, and naturally brings your ANS into balance. However, if your breathing is short, shallow, erratic (or all of the above), your thoracic pump doesn’t help your heart, and can even work against it, putting additional stress on it.
Research has shown that HRV is an excellent indicator of not only the function of your thoracic pump, but of your mood, resilience, and the general health of your autonomic nervous system. Keeping your ANS in balance with coherent breathing not only has many long-term health benefits, like reducing hypertension and cardiac arrhythmias, but it also improves the quality and quantity of oxygen to your brain, improving cognitive function.
Because coherent breathing requires you to focus on your breath (at least until you practice it enough that it becomes a habit), it’s a natural complement to meditation (and consequently it's often associated with it). But in reality they are two different things. Meditation uses concentration on your breath as a mental anchor point. However, it doesn't require that you do anything to alter your breath’s natural rhythm; only that you pay attention to it. Coherent breathing, on the other hand, is a technique to consciously control your breathing pattern in a way that helps balance your nervous system.
A portable solution
The nice thing about coherent breathing (aside from the incredible health benefits) is that it can be done pretty much anywhere and at any time. While you do need to do it consistently to reap the long-term health benefits, you can also use it as a quick-fix response to a stressful situation. And the short-term benefits of even a few minutes of coherent breathing can last for several hours. If you do practice coherent breathing regularly, it will gradually bring your nervous system back into balance, and build up its resilience so that you don’t slip into sympathetic mode as easily when you encounter stressful situations in the future.
There is a lot of information on the internet about HRV and how to do coherent breathing, as well as apps and devices that can help you, some of which are free. Rather than go into descriptions of them, I’ll include links to a few resources that you can check out if you want to learn more. I do not have any affiliations with any of the companies I have linked to below.
I will simply say that, you do not need anything to learn how to do coherent breathing and reap the short and long-term benefits. If you want to be able to measure your HRV, that will require some type of technology, whether it’s a fitness wearable device or an app on your phone.
I’ve been using coherent breathing on an almost daily basis for over a year now, and I have definitely noticed an improvement in my energy level, my mental clarity, and my ability to handle stress. I’d love to hear how it’s working for you. Please let me know by leaving a comment below.
Links to information on HRV and coherent breathing
I recently discovered this article that describes a new study that discovered another benefit to coherent breathing: improved attention and overall brain health.