Controlled Breathing

“Controlled Breathing” is a name I gave to my version of a very easy to learn and use, self-healing technique.  It is based on research that has demonstrated a powerful healing effect from the use of heart rate variability biofeedback devices.  Through careful review of a large number of these research reports, and my own experimentation, I discovered that a much simpler version of this strategy can be very practical for almost anyone to use, and this simplification retains almost all the benefits of the much more complex and sophisticated heart rate variability biofeedback techniques.

Well-designed scientific research studies have shown that repeatedly using breathing sessions where you precisely control your rate of breathing can lessen anxiety, improve depression, and may improve or eliminate insomnia. The research also shows that 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.

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 downregulating 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 the benefits of continued use accumulate over time.

These sessions will be most useful if used for a few minutes every day, and with continued use the beneficial effects should slowly increase over time.  While you might be able to see or feel some benefits immediately, to be able to clearly decide if these sessions are helping may require several weeks of continued use.

The most readily available way to use this technique is to download a free app on a smartphone that can be used to guide you to breathe at a precise, pre-selected breathing pattern.  An app called “iBreathe” works well if you have an iphone and “Breathly” for an android phone.  Once you have a good app downloaded, you should find the “custom settings” screen to set the inhale and exhale timing as well as any holds.  It is the total duration of each breath that determines the important frequency of the session you are preparing to do.  For example, you might set 5 seconds for inhale, 2 seconds hold between your inhale and exhale, and 5 seconds for exhale.  The key number would then be a total of 12 seconds per breath (or 5 breaths per minute).  Most apps also allow you to pre-set the total duration of your breathing session.  I recommend starting at about 5 minutes, but longer is probably even better.  Once you start a session, each device will give you a shape, figure or cursor to use to time each phase of your breathing, and signal you when your selected total time is up.

Next, you should select a time and location for your sessions.  Most likely, you will want a private location and a time when it is unlikely that you will be interrupted.  I find that a reasonable way to start is to plan on a 5-minute session twice a day.  I also recommend starting with 5 seconds inhale and 5 seconds exhale.  In general, slower breathing rates are more potent, so you might want to add a second to your breathing settings every few days.  As I mentioned earlier, it is the total duration of each breath that sets up the frequency, so add the longer time to either the inhale, exhale or holds as you find is most comfortable and natural for you.

If you have trouble following the app timer when you first try it, it is likely that you are inhaling or exhaling too quickly.  To get over this problem, you might want to try using what some call “pursed lips” breathing.  This means you will breathe through your mouth and close your lips down like when you blow out a candle.  You can slow both your inhale and exhale this way, and once you get used to slow breathing you may no longer need it.  I find, though, that when I attempt very slow breathing rates, it is easiest to go back to the pursed lips method.

Using controlled breathing for better sleep:  If you consistently use this strategy for several weeks, you should find it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.  The longer you use it the better it should work.  If practical, try to do your last session of the day just prior to sleep, so you are more relaxed and the session will shut your thinking off for a few minutes.  Once you are well practiced with the technique, you can also use it without the app in the middle of the night by counting the seconds to yourself silently (e.g.: one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.).  When I wake up at night and have difficulty going back to sleep, I find I often fall back to sleep after about my third or fourth breath while using slow breathing.

Using controlled breathing to de-stress:  To maximize the relaxing effect of this technique, you should aim to get used to breathing as slowly as possible (as long as the rate you are using is comfortable).  Concentrating on very slow breathing usually stops you from thinking about other things.  Much of our habitual thinking is actually motivated by stress and worries, and this kind of thinking stimulates the release of the stress chemicals in our body.  We feel anxious and our body is being slowly damaged by these stressful thought patterns.  Using slow breathing sessions usually shuts off stressful thinking, calms your mind and heals your body.  If you are often very anxious, try using 10 minutes of controlled breathing twice a day, for a few weeks, to better maximize the benefit.

If you find yourself getting stressed by events at work or during a busy day, you might try just silently counting  your breathing to yourself without opening the app.  People who do this after stressful events report feeling much calmer very quickly.  Correctional officers have reported great benefit when they face high levels of stress during their work in our prisons.  Special forces soldiers, who also routinelyface high levels of stress, have reported great benefit when using this kind of strategy to quickly recover.

Using controlled breathing to lower your blood pressure:  You could use the same approach that I recommended above  (to de-stress) if you are trying to lower your blood pressure.  About a year ago, my blood pressure was averaging about 152 over 95 and I was going to start blood pressure medicine.  But after I read the research about how effective using heart rate variability biofeedback was for lowering blood pressure, I decide to try controlled breathing first. When I checked my blood pressure before and after doing 10-minute controlled breathing sessions, I found a significant and repeatable drop in my blood pressure.  Over the next few months my average blood pressure slowly dropped.  My blood pressure is now averaging 112 over 70, without medications.

Using controlled breathing to lower blood sugar:  In a manner just like I suggested for managing stress and lowering blood pressure, you can try using controlled breathing to lower your blood sugar.  Just like the improvements  seen for insomnia, anxiety and blood pressure, there are also research reports showing that heart rate variability biofeedback lowers average blood sugar with continued use.  People who have checked their blood sugar before and after doing controlled breathing sessions have reported the sessions produce drops in their readings.  Although I do not yet have much data to demonstrate this, I suspect that continued use of carefully timed controlled breathing sessions will be likely to lower the medication requirements for those with diabetes.

If you decide to give this a try, here are several things to keep in mind.  Since using some method to precisely guide the timing of your breathing  is very important, use a smartphone app or a similar timing device whenever possible.  While slower breathing rates are usually better and more effective, the research reports also indicate that you might find a specific rate that does better than others.  Also, the longer you use this strategy, the more the benefits should accrue over time.

There are other ways you might want to use to improve the effectiveness of controlled breathing sessions.  One is to become skilled at very 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.

Finally, there are research studies that indicate that including any statement that is positive, and feels good, will increase the healing effect of the sessions.   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, such as “God is good”, as an alternative to using affirmations.