As a psychologist, I sometimes wish for the superpower to make my patients do the self-care exercises that we discuss in session. As a psychologist during our time of pandemic, I definitely wish that I could make everyone, everywhere practice one tool in particular. More than any other tip, technique, or exercise, I have found a particular kind of slow, controlled breathing, called Coherent Breathing, to be extremely effective and easy to learn and practice. Scientific research has revealed an extraordinarily broad set of benefits from doing this one simple breathing technique. Everything from cardiovascular function to asthma and from immune power to psychological resilience improves because of its powerful balancing effect on the nervous system.
Coherent Breathing can be used on-the-fly to promptly settle your system when stressed. I especially like it when I’m feeling troubled by the news or if I catch my mind dwelling too long on a dark or troublesome scenario. However, the benefits do not stop there. If it is practiced on a daily or regular basis, Coherent Breathing functions as a kind of re-wiring for the nervous system. This will gradually shift the baseline of your nervous system and reduce your overall level of distress, thereby increasing your resilience for whatever lies ahead.
Here is a quick primer on Coherent Breathing so that you can get up and running. The structure is quite simple. It is simply slow, rhythmic, breathing through the nose with no holding of the breath. The inhale and the exhale should be of equal length, generally 5 or 6 seconds apiece. This works out to 5-6 breaths per minute, which is considerably slower than our customary 14-20.
As for length of practice, I recommend that people do this for 5-10 minutes at a time. For maximum effect, you might go up to 20 minutes, and you can feel free to repeat it again later in the day. The end result is a state of being that is calm and settled yet clear and focused.
Here are some things to keep in mind – don’t worry about doing it perfectly. It takes some practice to get used to breathing in such a slow and controlled manner. The breath needs to be gentle, not forced or rushed. Taking big breaths will make it less effective or even uncomfortable. Rather than trying to fill up your lungs, focus instead on a steady, controlled movement of air. Ideally, it is a full breath with a soft movement of the belly, rather than the drastic expansion of the shoulders/neck which are associated with shallow breathing.
Finally, the easiest way to practice this is with a breath pacer. That way you do not have to keep track of the count or the elapsed time. There are a growing number of free breath pacer apps, such as iBreathe or Breathing App. Make sure to set the controls for inhale and exhale of 5-6 seconds apiece with no holds. Finally, I am happy to report that my favorite breathing website is back online to help us all. Doasone.com houses a World Breathing Room which allows you to breathe at 6 breaths per minute with people from all around the world. Given the myriad challenges of the present, coming together to breathe in sync gets my highest recommendation for soothing our disconnection and distress.