Want to give your brain a workout to boost resilience? It's breathtakingly simple.
It’s true that simply breathing at a specific slow rate maximises an effect in the heart called “respiratory sinus arrhythmia”. This happens when the intervals between heart beats (your Heart Rate Variability or HRV) get increase in sync with your inhalation and decrease with your exhalation.
This effect, is a super power we can all access, that increases our resilience to stressful events and boosts emotional wellbeing.
Want to see the evidence?Well, here is a cool infographic showing how daily training at your personal rate of slow breathing (for most it’s around 6 breathes per minute), not only makes you feel good in the moment but has long lasting benefits.
The amazing research team from the University of California have recently published their study results involving 102 participants put through a 5-week daily training of breath work, with brain scans taken before and after to look for differences. The scans focused on changes in the amygdala, the two almond shaped structures in the middle of the brain, whose job it is to control processes involved in emotional regulation as well as all the other brain networks that get involved.
Half of the group were controls, who were invited to think calm thoughts during the training, whilst the study group were invited to follow a slow breathing protocol with real time feedback to show the increases in their Heart Rate Variability (HRV), our favourite and robust biomarker of stress that correlates directly with emotional wellbeing.
So what did they find out?
The study group showed a significant increase in their heart rate total spectral frequency power during training and higher resting HRV post training. In simple terms this is a strong measure of activation of our favourite nerve, the vagus nerve with its direct link into the parasympathetic nervous system.
A review of the brain scans revealed the left amygdala was the most responsive to changes in HRV (although previous studies showed a response in right and left) as part of a general pattern of increased activity across all emotion regulating networks in the brain.
Indeed, the scans showed an effective down regulation of brain regions associated with body states when participants tried to regulate their emotional response, compared to the control group. This suggests the control regions in the front of the brain (prefrontal and parietal) affected the amygdala by changing the way sensory information was represented in the part of the brain that processes sensory inputs*.
All very clever.
What’s more for people with symptoms of anxiety who were practicing the slow breathing, another set of brain regions came into play** that process signals from the body. Here it is likely the breathing strengthened the feedback loop, helping these participants to further dial down emotional reactions to negative stimuli.
And for the finale!
The effects of the slow breathing last beyond the training session.
And if you really just want to think calm thoughts without doing the breath work, it is still good for you with both groups in this study reporting an increase in mood.
However, the winning life changing benefit of the slow synchronised breathing is that is gives cortical areas of your brain involved in physiological control a complete workout, so next time you face something stressful, you cope a whole lot better.
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*lateral temporal lobes
**right posterior insula, right inferior and superior parietal lobule, right postcentral gyrus, and right operculum
*** right posterior insula, right inferior and superior parietal lobule, right postcentral gyrus, and right operculum
Read the full study here:
Nashiro, K., Min, J., Yoo, H. J., Cho, C., Bachman, S. L., Dutt, S., ... & Mather, M. (2021). Enhancing the brain's emotion regulation capacity with a randomised trial of a 5-week heart rate variability biofeedback intervention. medRxiv.