Stressed and Overwhelmed? Boost your heart rate variability with slow breathing
Is this you?
Ever wish there were more hours in a day to tackle that never-ending to-do list? Modern life can sometimes feel like running a marathon without a finish line and your rest is often pushed to the sidelines. With the continuous overwhelm of stress and responsibilities, it’s easy to forget that we’re not machines. But what if there’s a different way to navigate this relentless race?
It’s important to manage your stress
You might think that you are strong enough to handle a lot of stress but the reality is that your nervous system isn’t designed for the constant overwhelm of the modern lifestyle. It needs rest, calm, peace, and pause. Short-term stress from time to time is normal. It can even help us excel in certain situations, but long-term stress and overwhelm can cause long-lasting damage to our body and brain, and can severely interfere with our everyday functioning.
Long-term stress is also associated with an increased risk of pathological conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, immune disorders, infectious diseases, chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders, an imbalanced nervous system, and depression (Cohen et al., 2007).
This reminds me of a very stressful period of my life which left me totally brain fogged, unable to be present in my body, completely disconnected from my surroundings, incapable of focusing or concentrating, incapable of developing or maintaining any kind of relationship, moody, anxious, isolated, irritated and alone. Even my asthma got worse during that time.
Yes, stress can take a huge toll on your mental, physical, and social health!
So, how can you support yourself in times of stress?
Introducing Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Thanks to modern technology, we can now closely monitor our health and well-being. We can check our activity, sleep cycle, heart rate, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure, in the comforts of our homes. Researchers have now identified heart rate variability (HRV) as an indicator of stress levels and as a biomarker of the health of our nervous system (Jiryis et al., 2022).
So, what is HRV?
It simply is a measure of variation in time between each of our heartbeats.Interestingly, it’s our Autonomic nervous system (ANS) that regulates this variation. As we already know, ANS is the unconscious part of our brain that works behind the scenes and controls automatic activities like our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and breathing. ANS comprises two major, but oppositely acting subsystems: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The PNS has a calming, relaxing effect on the body and supports the homeostasis of your organs. In contrast, the SNS is responsible for alertness, and preparing the body for emergencies by activating the flight, fight, or freeze response. While our ANS constantly strives to maintain a balance between PNS and SNS, the non-stop stressors of modern life can easily disrupt this balance, shifting our SNS into overdrive, and leaving our bodies stuck in fight-and-flight mode.
By knowing our HRV, we can know about the health of our ANS and can understand how our body is responding to our daily experiences.An overstimulated flight, fight, or freeze mode increases our heart rate and decreases our HRV due to insufficient periods for the heartbeat. In contrast, a relaxed state decreases our heart rate and increases our HRV. Simply put, a higher HRV means a well-balanced ANS, greater fitness, greater ability to adapt to our environment, and an overall healthier lifestyle (Tiwari et al., 2021).
Breathe slowly to raise your HRV
What if I tell you that by breathing slowly and deeply, we can achieve maximum HRV?
This happens because the same brain regions control our breathing and heart rate.
When we breathe in, our heart rate increases, and the time interval between the heartbeats decreases, and when we breathe out, the heart rate decreases and the time interval between the heartbeats increases and the heart rate decreases. Thus, if our body is healthy and well-responsive, our natural breathing pattern is capable of producing variations between heartbeats.
Researchers have found that when we breathe slowly, we tell our body to tap into our PNS and shift to a “rest and digest” response. This results in decreased blood pressure and decreased heart rate (Russo et al., 2017). This means that by breathing slowly, we can synchronise our breath with our heart rate, and improve our HRV! This technique of breathing that aligns our breath and heart and helps us achieve maximum HRV is popularly known as coherent breathing or resonance frequency breathing.
A recent meta-analysis of 223 studies documented an increase in parasympathetic control of heart rate and increased HRV score, during, immediately after as well as several sessions after slow breathing (Laborde et al., 2022).
How to get started today
We all have a unique resonance frequency breathing rate which usually lies between the range of 4.5-7 breaths per minute, the most common being 6 breaths per minute.
Step 1: Get Comfortable and just breathe
- Find yourself a place with minimum distractions and get comfortable
- Assume a meditation posture or lie down, with your eyes closed if it feels comfortable, consciously allowing your heart, brain, and rest of the body to slide into calmness
- Breathe naturally and take a moment to notice the length of your inhale and exhale.
Step 2: Gently inhale
- Begin by breathing in through your nose with your mouth closed for a count of 6 seconds.
- Engage your diaphragm and let the air fill your belly.
- Count the seconds in your head to stop your mind from wandering.
Step 3: Slowly exhale
- Now gently and slowly exhale for 6 seconds.
- That would make it 12 seconds per breath and therefore, 5 breaths per minute.
Breathe as evenly as possible. If you are uncomfortable with this rate, breathe slightly slower or faster. For example, start with 4 seconds inhale and 4 seconds exhale. From here, work your way up and extend your inhales and exhales up to 6 seconds.The same goes for the duration of this breathwork – work your way up!
Start from a minimum of 5 minutes and aim for 20 minutes per session. Practice it anywhere, in bed, on your workbench, or while waiting for that important job interview. Master your breath, master your health.
Article by Dr. Chanchal Chauhan – Biocellular Expert
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