4-7-8. Block. Square. Belly.

If you've been looking for breathing exercises to help relieve anxiety, then you've probably come across all of the above and maybe you've even tried a few.

I don't teach any of those breathing exercises. In fact, after years of helping people with anxiety (including myself) I've learnt that there's only one breathing exercise that's really effective at nipping anxiety, panic, stress and overwhelm in the bud.

It's so good, it's the only breathing exercise I teach.

It's called Coherent Breathing - or Resonant Breathing. Simply put, it involves a pattern of slow breathing where we breathe in for 6 seconds and out for 6 seconds, and keep that going for several minutes, or until we feel calmer.

The best thing about this breathing exercise is it's not just great for eliminating anxiety. If you practise this as part of a regular daily routine, you'll start to feel more balanced, grounded, calmer and more in control of the day ahead.

Note: Coherent Breathing is a registered trademark of Coherence LLC. Note that this article describes a general technique and not the specific protocol developed by Coherence LLC.




The Science Part

We generally breathe in at a rate of 2-3 seconds per inhale and exhale.

But when we're stressed or anxious, our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes faster and shallower. That's perfect for when we're in danger and need to react quickly to survive. Not so good if it's a constant state of panic and we can never relax.

Coherent breathing is a nervous system hack that helps slow down our heart rate and breathing to help us feel calmer.

Our body is run by a network of nerves that make up our nervous system. Part of our nervous system is responsible for automatic functions like making sure our heart beats and regulating our breathing, as well as other functions like digestion. This part is called the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS).

The ANS is made up of two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

The Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for keeping us alert, making our heart beat faster, our breathing rate increase, and boosting blood flow to all our major organs and limbs. When we're stressed or anxious, this part of the ANS is dominant.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is a network of nerves that relaxes our bodies after periods of stress or danger. It also helps processes like digestion. When we're relaxed, this part of the ANS is in control.

To function at our best when we're going about our daily lives, we need to be alert but not too alert, relaxed but not too relaxed. That happens when both branches of the ANS are in balance.

When we're anxious, however, the Sympathetic Nervous System takes over. That's why we experience that classic racing heart and a feeling of not being able to catch our breath as symptoms of anxiety.

Research into Coherent Breathing is in its infancy but there are encouraging results that show it activates the Vagus nerve to help calm the ANS, slowing our heart rate down and helping us feel more in balance, and grounded. There's evidence that it not only helps relieve symptoms of anxiety but can also improve mood with people struggling with depression.

Why I don't teach any other form of breathing exercise

There are so many different breathing exercises and all of them are beneficial. If you find they work for you, that's great.

In my practice, coherent breathing is one of the very first techniques I teach my clients to help regulate an over-stressed nervous system and it's the only breathing exercise I teach. I remember it was one of the best ways I could avert a panic attack.

The feedback I get, time after time from my clients, is that it works every single time they feel anxious. Some of my clients say they can't believe how easy it is - it feels like 'magic'.

It's the perfect exercise to practise before a major event like an exam or test, or where you're meeting new people and you know you struggle with social anxiety.

But I encourage you to start practising this technique daily, maybe for 5 minutes a day, building up to 15 minutes a day. See how you get on. And, as always, message me to let me know how it's working for you - I'd love to hear from you.

Dawn x

During moments of stress, anxiety and even panic attacks, the common advice tends to be to "take deep breaths. "But that advice is now being seen as outdated, and in some cases might make stress and anxiety worse.

About a year ago, I learnt of a breathing technique that really does nix moments of stress, not just in the short-term but also long-term, and relatively quickly too. It worked for me (I'll show you a fascinating little self-experiment in a mo), and it has also worked for my clients, so much so that this is the only breathing exercise I teach, and I teach it to all my clients for general wellbeing regardless of whether they're suffering from anxiety or not.

Coherent or resonant breathing is a technique that helps bring both emotional and physiological systems in the body into balance in order to boost overall health and wellbeing. The idea is to make breathing slower and more rhythmic by making sure every exhalation is the same length as every inhalation.

I've read a couple of different accounts of how and why this works. The creator of the trademarked Coherent Breathing method, Stephen Elliott proposes the theory that moving the diaphragm in a rhythmic manner stimulates the phrenic nerve thereby promoting optimal circulation, better brain function and "nourishing every cell in the body in a positive feedback loop".

Other research shows that coherent or resonant breathing helps bring Heart Rate Variability (HRV) into a smoother, more even pattern which promotes the better functioning of every organ in the body, most importantly the brain.

HRV, by the way, is the measurement of the gaps between heart beats - and is now recognised as a far better way of measuring overall health and fitness, compared to just measuring heart rate. If you're intrigued by HRV there is excellent information over on the HeartMath website.

First, a bit of science
Our Autonomic Nervous System is the part of our nervous system that governs automatic bodily functions like breathing, digestion and our heart beat, The ANS is in turn divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Both regulate the same bodily functions but have opposite jobs. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for intense physical activity (fight or flight); while the parasympathetic nervous system prepares the body for relaxation and rest.

While we are awake, our optimal state is when both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are in balance. When  brain function, heart rate and breathing are all in balance, we cope with stress better, we are more sociable and positive, and tend to be more resilient.

When we are stressed, however, our bodies stay in high alert, with our sympathetic nervous systems constantly firing. Although still evolving, research into HRV and coherence is showing a link between lower coherence and disease and aging.

Coherent or resonant breathing works by hacking the ANS to bring both sympathetic and parasympathetic systems  back into balance almost instantly.

You can find a number of apps that help you track your own personal coherence index and HRV.  I use WellTory.  The results below show my body before and after 5 minutes of Coherent Breathing.

A measure of wellbeing before coherent breathing (using WellTory app)

The coherence index is very low.

and after coherent breathing. The coherence index has more than doubled.


How to Practise Coherent Breathing

Relax and find a quiet spot where you won't be disturbed. Breathe in for 6 seconds. Then breathe out for 6 seconds. If 6 seconds feels too long, start with 4 seconds and build up to 6 seconds. Make sure both your inhalation and exhalation are the same length.

Start with a minute or two then build up gradually to however long feels comfortable. Some recommend a daily practise of 20 minutes, but I tend to follow the principle of "little and often" as a guide,

You can find a number of apps that help guide you through a timed breathing technique. Calm's Breathe setting allows you to set the timings for your breath and plays a different note for inhales and exhales (so you can practise with your eyes closed.).

The Breathing App by Deepak Chopra and Eddie Stern (with music by Moby) allows you to choose from a pre-selected format of breathing patterns with five different screens. 


Try a guided meditation


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