Parasympathetic Breathing

One of the Daily Practices I recommend to almost all of my clients is what I call Parasympathetic Breathing. (For a description of the function of the body’s parasympathetic response, see Balance in the Stress / Recovery System ).

A normal rate of breathing for an adult is about twelve to fourteen breaths per minute. When we get anxious, we do one of two things: We either hold our breath, or we start breathing faster. We might get to twenty breaths per minute or higher in a state of distress.  As we change our breathing, within about thirty seconds, we are going to change our blood oxygen level, which then changes oxygen delivery to the brain, and keep in mind your brain runs on oxygen. Down at the lower end of the range, somewhere between five and seven breaths per minute is what gives us the greatest heart rate variability.  

Heart Rate variability (HRV) has been linked with many health and mental health benefits, including engaging the calming response. One of my clients, Karyn, was able to reduce her systolic blood pressure twenty points just by using parasympathetic breathing. Increasing HRV over time restores balance to the stress response system.

In my office, we can use sensors to detect a person’s exact ideal rate of breathing, but short of doing that, “six” is in the middle of the five to seven breaths per minute range. And six breaths per minute is easy to remember. Six breaths per minute is one breath every ten seconds.If you were to breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for five seconds, you are breathing at the rate of one breath every  ten seconds, or six breaths per minute. So it’s easy to remember: five seconds in, five Seconds out for five minutes a day. If you like it, you can do it more. You can’t do it too much. 

A warning: Sometimes your breathing mechanics may be irregular.  In this case, you won’t get the most benefit out of parasympathetic breathing, and in some cases, it can actually increase anxiety. 

To determine your mechanics, I’d like you to try an exercise. (Note: If you have respiratory or other medical conditions, please consult your physician before trying this exercise) Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest and breathe normally.  After a few breaths, notice which hand moves first. Ideally the hand on your chest is moving very little, if at all, and the hand on your belly moves first and most.  

If you have a hard time moving your breath down into your belly, here is a simple strategy that can help.  Take a book the size of a hardcover dictionary and place it on your belly as you lay flat on your back. As you breathe in you should see the book rise, when you breathe out, the book should fall again. Do your parasympathetic breathing for at least five minutes a day on your back until you can get your breathing into your belly without having to think about the mechanics.

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