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The Science of Breathing


What is something that you always have but sometimes have to catch? At times, it can be difficult to ignore and at others, difficult to notice. It can smell, be fast, slow, hot or cold. It can pause but never stop.

What is it?

You probably already figured it out from the yes, it is the breath. It is the most dynamic and, arguably important, mental skill any athlete or performer has at their disposal. It can lower anxiety, improve focus and alertness, increase energy, silence our thoughts, and bring us to the present moment.

I have lots of clients who say “breathing just doesn’t work for me, it has never been able to relax me”. Then I ask if they have ever been taught the proper way to breathe and the resounding answer is always no.

To be able to leverage all the advantages breathing has to offer requires a bit of an understanding of the psychophysiological mechanisms behind its effectiveness. So, let’s nerd out for a bit!

Lesson 1: When you inhale, your heart rate increases. When you exhale, your heart rate decreases.

The autonomic nervous system is what controls the processes that go on mostly behind the scenes, like your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. It consists of the sympathetic nervous system, which increases the rate of these processes and the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows these processes down.

When you inhale you activate your sympathetic nervous system, which increases your heart rate and blood pressure, among other things. When you exhale you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down your heart rate and blood pressure. This is a phenomenon called respiratory sinus arrhythmia and is only seen in humans and some other mammals.

The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight or flight response. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia is the key to why we can override the fight or flight response at times (when other animals can’t). A specific nerve fiber, the vagus nerves, which connects the brain to the heart and lungs (among other parts of the body) controls the parasympathetic response and can be activated by purposeful breathing.

Lesson 2: We all have a unique, optimal breathing rate that can maximize the benefits of breathing.

In studies by Lehrer, Vaschillo, and Vaschillo (2000), they figured out that each person has a specific breathing rate that can maximize the benefits of effective breathing, called your resonance breathing rate. To figure out your specific breathing rate requires the use of biofeedback technology, but everyone’s rate is close to 6 seconds during the inhale and 6 during the exhale. At this rate (or close to it) you are able to sync up the different mechanisms in your cardiovascular system so that you maximize the effects of respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

Lesson 3: Your heart rate isn’t a perfect beat. It varies, and that is a good thing.

Because your breathing impacts how quickly your heart will beat, your heart does not hold a consistent beat. It will speed up and slow down according to how quickly you are breathing. This is called heart rate variability (HRV) and it is a good thing, it indicates that your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are working well together. Research has shown that increasing HRV through breathing techniques can improve athletic performance, reduce anxiety, lower stress, improve reaction time, relieve headaches, and other medical benefits.

Conclusion: Learn to use these processes to your advantage

In theory breathing is an easy skill but in practice it is much more difficult. Being able to quickly and effectively lower your levels of anxiety, nervousness, or stress through breathing requires practice, just like any physical skill. As a rule of thumb, if you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, or nervous, take 10 breaths each 12 seconds long. It'll take practice to figure out the right tempo to your breathing but once you get it down you will have a tool that can be used in so many different situations.

I use HRV biofeedback technology to help show individuals what their breathing patterns are like, teach them specific methods to improve their breathing, find their specific optimal breathing rate, and then train using that breathing rate by simulating the circumstances they would face in their performance. If this sounds like something that would benefit you, give me shout.

Let's get to work.

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