The breathtaking science of releasing stress
The way you breathe has direct influence, via your heart, on your brain
You have the power to de-stress using your breathing. At a specific slower rate than normal, you can activate the vagus nerve in your heart which improves mood and resilience. You can measure this by looking for an increase in your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), the change in intervals between your heart beats. Simple, data, science driven and evidence based.
When it comes to your heart, we tend to think its about measuring the beats per minute, increasing as you get stressed or are running around before dropping back to a normal resting rate.
But your heart is much more sophisticated than that. To be as efficient as possible, it speeds up as you inhale, to maximise the amount of blood pulled from your veins and pumped to the lungs, then slowing down as you exhale. The difference between this speeding up and slowing down, controlled by your autonomic nervous system, is your Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
When you get stressed, the sympathetic “flight of fright” arm of the nervous system swings into action, increasing the heart’s contraction rates and force, preparing you for potential danger and your HRV decreases. As you relax, the parasympathetic “rest and digest” arm of your nervous system steps in and your HRV increases again. The balance between the two is important but gets damaged if the stress response gets set off too often.
However, you have the power to increase your HRV simply by the way you breathe.
We all have a special slower rate of breathing, around 5 breathes per minute (we normally breathe between 12-20 times per minute), where you get a resonance between your breathing rate and the electrical impulses sent from the sinoatrial nodes in your heart, that controls your heart rate and is your natural pacemaker. The term for this effect is "respiratory sinus arrhythmia" (RSA) and is referred to as a measure of your “vagal tone”, as it’s under the influence of the vagus nerve, that makes up most of the parasympathetic nervous system and connects the heart to the brain and all other major organs.
In the picture below of Esther’s heart rate (top and red) you can see she is following the breathing pacer (blue) and that her heart rate starts to rise at the beginning of inhalation, when the blue line goes up and drops as she breathes out.
At this resonance frequency you get the most gaseous exchange in your lungs, your heart is working most efficiently and pumping blood around the body at the right pressure.
This isn’t new of course, yogi meditators realised this 2,500 years ago, reaping the powerful benefits of cardiovascular health as seen by the very low prevalence of high blood pressure.
If this isn’t sweetness enough, you need to know that with your long slow exhalations, your vagus nerve is stimulated, producing even greater amplitudes in your heart rate variations and at the same time sending messages to the brain areas involved in mood and emotion, to say everything is OK, feel good!
And it’s all in your gift. Simple.
The results show less stress as measured by a drop in resting heart rate & increased HRV.
In our research we have shown how daily training increased HRV against a baseline over a 6 week training programme, as shown below. We also showed a drop in resting heart rate against a baseline, consistent with other published data.