Did you know that you can consciously control some of your unconscious or automatic vital systems? As an example, think about breathing. This normally happens automatically, without conscious control of every breath, right? But, you can also voluntarily control individual breaths. The same way, you can have influence over other functions like heart rate, blood pressure and even brain function through different forms of biofeedback. This exercise is using breath control to influence heart rate in general but also in certain specific situations like anxiety or panic attacks.
- Attach a pulse oximeter to a finger and note your starting pulse
- Take a slow, smooth, regular breath through your nose into your lower belly for about 4 seconds
- Pause and hold your breath for 1-2 seconds
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for about 8 seconds
- Note your pulse and wait a few more seconds before taking another breath
- During this breathing exercise your ratio of inhalation to exhalation should always be 1:2. If you breathe in for 3 seconds, breathe out for 6 seconds.
- You can also hold slight pressure with your fingers over your closed eyes which will activate your oculo-cardiac reflex further reducing your heart rate.
- Try to breathe from your diaphragm or abdomen (lower belly). Your shoulders and chest area should be fairly relaxed and still. If this is challenging at first, it can be helpful to first try this exercise by lying down on the floor with one hand on your heart, the other hand on your abdomen. Watch the hand on your abdomen rise as you fill your lungs with air, expanding your chest. (The hand over your heart should barely move, if at all.)
Do this exercise at least 3 times per day. Once in the morning, once midday and also before bed. Additional times to use are before doing any brain therapy (at home or in our office) and also when you feel stress, anxious or are in a panic attack.
Key point: You do not need to be feeling anxious to practice – in fact, at first you should practice while feeling relatively calm. You need to be comfortable breathing this way when feeling calm, before you can feel comfortable doing it when anxious. Like other anxiety-management skills, the purpose of calm breathing is not to avoid anxiety at all costs, but just to take the edge off or help you “ride out” the feelings.
Advanced Practice: Do you know why you rub your eyes sometimes? It’s because you are hard wired to activate your oculo-cardiac reflex (gentle pressure on your eyes) which slows down your heart rate. You can apply this concept to mindful breathing as well. During your breath hold in step 3, apply light pressure with your fingers over your closed eyes. This will further reduce your heart rate.