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.
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.
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.