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wellness / mental health

What is Coherent Breathing?

by BetterSleep
Nov 24 2022 • 4 min read

Coherent breathing is a simple but powerful way to be more mindful of how you breathe. By controlling your breathing in this way, you can improve anxiety, stress, depression, and insomnia. It takes some practice to breathe deeply because most people tend to take shallow breaths.

But, if you take some time to control your breaths or even to match them to your heartbeat, you’ll reap a lot of benefits. Here’s what you need to know to get started with controlled breathing.

About Deep Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises are nothing new. People have practiced controlled breaths and breathing exercises for thousands of years. Perhaps the most well-known ancient breathing practice is Pranayama.

Pranayama is a part of yoga and involves breath control to connect the mind and body. Pranayama includes several different types of exercises, often done while practicing asanas, or yoga poses.

The primary reason people turn to breathing exercises today is for relaxation. Taking time to control your breathing, using any valid method, can bring big benefits:

  • Increased relaxation
  • Reduced stress
  • Lowered heart rate and blood pressure
  • Reduced anxiety

Essentially, what happens when you breathe more deeply is you induce a relaxation response in the brain and body. This has all kinds of good consequences.

What Is Coherent Breathing?

There are many different ways to practice and get benefits from controlled and deep breathing. Coherent breathing is one of the simplest and most effective. It is simply a controlled type of breathing in which you inhale and exhale deeply and longer than usual.

Typically, you work up to it, but coherent breathing is approximately five breaths per minute. This amounts to inhaling for six seconds and then exhaling for six seconds.

Breath work affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the part of the body’s nervous system that controls many involuntary processes: breathing, digestion, blood pressure, and heart rate.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) are part of the ANS. The SNS, when triggered, elevates all these processes, creating stress and initiating your fight-or-flight response.

The PNS does the opposite when triggered: it slows down the heart, blood pressure, breathing, and more.

While these are mostly involuntary processes, you can affect them with your breathing. When you breathe more deeply, slowly, and with control, you trigger the PNS. This is why breathwork is so good for managing stress and anxiety. It slows everything down and relaxes you.

The Benefits of Coherent Breathing

Coherent breathing is like a chain reaction. If you can get your breathing under control and slow it, everything else in the ANS will follow suit. Research on coherent breathing is still in its infancy, but some studies have already proven it has serious benefits.

Reduce Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety is a common mental health symptom, even in people without a diagnosed anxiety disorder. It is a typical reason to turn to alternative practices like meditation and deep breathing.

Studies have shown that breathing techniques like coherent breathing can reduce anxiety naturally. A part of this effect is the reduction of stress in the body. Deep breathing can make you more resilient in the face of stress and less anxious.

Manage Depression

A study of 15 people with major depression used a combination of yoga and coherent breathing to determine how they affected symptoms. After 12 weeks of the program, all participants experienced significant reductions in depression symptoms.

Treat Insomnia

Insomnia can have many underlying causes, including anxiety, depression, and stress. Managing these mental health symptoms with breathing exercises can improve sleep. It is also possible that people who struggle with sleep have dysfunction in the ANS and that controlling it improves sleep.

In a study involving self-reported insomniacs, participants practiced 20 minutes of deep breathing before bed. The regular practice led to decreases in the time it took to fall asleep and the number of times they woke up during the night. They also measured greater sleep efficiency.

How to Practice Coherent Breathing

Practicing coherent breathing is relatively easy, but it can take some time to get used to it. Find a place where you can get comfortable and avoid disruptions for at least a few minutes. If you struggle with insomnia, it’s worth trying this at bedtime, but any time will do.

Start by focusing on how you breathe naturally. Notice how shallow and short your breaths are. You likely don’t inhale deeply or get air down into the bottom part of your lungs.

Take a deep breath and inhale for a count of three and then exhale slowly for three. As you practice more and relax, increase this to four, five, and eventually a count of six. Work your way up to 20 minutes of coherent breathing at a time.

Use coherent breathing whenever you need it. It is a simple and flexible practice. You can do it for a few minutes when you feel particularly stressed or use it before bed for a more extended period of time. You’ll get benefits no matter when you do it, but regular practice will give the best results.

Heart Coherence

To take coherent breathing to the next level and get even more benefits, you can try cardiac or heart coherence. The goal is to match your breathing to your heart rate, often by using a longer exhale than inhale.

Doing this simply involves the deep, slow breathing of coherent breathing, but some people find a benefit from using biofeedback. Biofeedback allows you to see how your breathing affects your heart rate, making it easier to match the two. Some therapists and alternative medicine practitioners can provide biofeedback services.

Some people claim that heart coherence is more effective than coherent breathing, but there isn’t much scientific support for that claim. On the other hand, it can’t hurt to try. If you want to get even more out of your breathing exercises, give it a try.

Coherent breathing is a simple, easy, and important type of breathwork that anyone can do. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, or simply want a better way to manage stress and sleep better, try it.

The BetterSleep app can support your practice with relaxation techniques, guided breathing exercises, a library of soothing sounds, and relaxing music. Tap into these tools to improve your mental health and take back control of your sleep.

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