Controlled breathing is a very easy to learn self-healing technique. It costs nothing to use, it is risk free and suprisingly powerful. Its only drawback is that you usually have to use it for an extended period of time to clearly see the benefits.
Well-designed scientific research studies have shown that its use can lessen anxiety, improve depression and can often improve or eliminate insomnia. Its extended use may even lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, improve breathing for those with asthma, and decrease joint pain for those with arthritis.
The technique requires that you slow your breathing down below your usual breathing rate and time the length of each breath and to be sure it is very regular. Spending 5 to 10 minutes once or twice a day may be all you need to be successful. It is best to find a quiet place to do this where you will not be interrupted and you can relax while doing your controlled breathing sessions.
To use this method of self-healing, you must find a way to to carefully and accurately time your breathing rate. If you have a smart phone, the best way to do this is to download a specially designed app that you can run while doing the breathing sessions. There are several free apps that work well. (I suggest iBreathe for an iPhone and Breathly for an Android) You do not need a smart phone, though, since any device that can be used as a timer can be used instead. Another alterntive is to just count silently to yourself as you breathe, but this is the least effective way since it is very hard to be precise with your timing in this fashion.
Why is precise timing so important? The researchers who have explored this question have found that certain very regular breathing rates resonate with various neurological and metabolic processes in your body. They have found that controlled breathing calms your nervous system by down-regulating the sympathetic “fight or flight” system and lowering stress hormones. These beneficial effects are most potent during the breathing sessions, but they also carry over somewhat into the rest of your day. This is why continued use is necessary to see the full benefits, and why the benefits of continued use accumulate over time.
Once you have selected a timing method to control your breathing, the next step is to pick the breathing rate you will use. Research studies have shown that the optimal breathing rates vary from one person to the next, but a good place to start is about 10 seconds per breath (or 6 breaths per minute). Try starting with 10 seconds and then go up or down by one second per breath and see if a slightly faster or slower rate make you feel better or have better results for you. Usually equal lengths of inhalation and exhalation work well, but you could also vary this if you prefer. For instance, for a 10 second breath, you could inhale for 6 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. You can also include holds if you want to. It is the total time per breath, adding up inhale time, exhale time, and holds that is the key number to be aware of. I would use whatever is most comfortable for you.
When you first start using this technique, you may find that it is hard to slow your breathing down enough. The easiest way may be to breathe through your mouth with your lips partially closed (sometimes called “pursed lips” breathing). This will allow you to easily slow both your inhation and exhalation rates.
If you are trying to improve chronic conditions such as anxiety, depression, diabetes or high blood pressure, I recommend you try to do controlled breathing for 5 minutes twice a day at first, and slowly increase the time to 10 minutes twice a day. If longer sessions are not feasable or comfortable for you, though, just do it as long as you can. Longer seems to be a little better, but not essential to success.
If you want to use controlled breathing to de-stress during the day, at times when you recognize that your stress level is high, you could find a way to be by yourself for a few minutes and time your breathing by counting the seconds silently in your head. This method can rapidly calm you and stop the damaging stress reaction that you may be experiencing.
One of the most effective uses for this tecnique is to help with insomnia. If you are having trouble falling asleep, use a controlled breathing session just prior to sleep. If you tend to wake up at night and can’t get back to sleep, you can start controlled breathing using silent counting (for example “one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc…”) as a way of timing your breathing until you fall back to sleep.
Even though using this technique as I described so far in this article can be very helpful and healing, we have just scratched the surface of its potential. There are several ways to improve its effectivenss that I can suggest in this short article. One way is to add a brief affirmation about health or healing to be stated silently in your mind while doing each breath. Another is to use a favorite prayer statement or phrase from the Bible, or other sacred text, as an alternative to jusing affirmations, during your sessions. Research suggests that including any statement that is positive, and feels good, will increase the healing effect of the sessions.
Another way to explore this technique for increased benefits is to become skilled at ever more slow breathing rates. What I have found while exploring slower rates is that certain very slow rates (especially 18 to 20 seconds per breath) have much higher resonance with my heart’s beat-to-beat variability (as measured by heart rhythm biofeedback devices). This would suggest that the usual rates used by researchers, often about 10 seconds per breath, while very effective, may not actually be the most optimal.
Yet another way to increase the effectivenss of this technique is to use a device called a heart rate varibility biofeedback monitor. You can use one of these devices to monitor the response of your brain and heart to the controlled breathing sessions. This can guide you toward your most effective breathing rates, length of sessions, etc. You can purchase a good device for less that $100 on the internet, and they usually have free manuals or videos to explain their use.
When you try this technique, try to use it for at least a month before you determine if it is effective or not. If it is effective for you, the longer you use it, the greater the benefits you should gain from it.