An Overview of Coherent Breathing

In This Article

Coherent Breathing is a form of breathing that involves taking long slow breaths at a rate of about five per minute. Coherent breathing, or deep breathing, helps to calm the body through its effect on the autonomic nervous system.

Whether it is practiced as part of yoga or meditation, or simply on its own as a relaxation strategy, coherent breathing is a simple and easy way to reduce stress and calm down when feeling anxious.

Coherent Breathing is a registered trademark of Coherence LLC. Note that this article describes a general technique and not the specific protocol or products developed by Coherence LLC.

Overview

Every day, you breathe in and out without giving it much thought. While it is true that breathing is an unconscious action, it is also unique in that we can bring it under conscious control. Coherent breathing takes advantage of this fact—by controlling our breath, we can affect our body in a positive way.

What makes up a breath? There's the inhale, or the time during which you draw air into your lungs, and the exhale, when you expel the air from your body.

Coherent breathing involves simply adjusting the length of time that you spend on each of these phases of breathing.

Our natural tendency is to breathe at a rate of two to three seconds per inhale and exhale. We naturally consume an amount of air that is proportional to the length of our breaths. In coherent breathing, the goal is to extend the length of both the inhale and exhale to around six seconds (perhaps longer if you are a taller person).

This type of controlled breathing is sometimes practiced as part of yoga (the term "pranayama" refers to breath control within yoga practice). It is also used within meditation. However, controlled breathing can be practiced on its own without any fancy tools, detailed instructions, or the need for a therapist. All you need to do is change the length of your breaths.

How Coherent Breathing Works

How does coherent breathing work to slow down your body? Breathing is one of many components of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which also includes your heart rate, digestive system, and more.

Your vagus nerve runs from your brain all the way down through to the opening of your diaphragm, and its purpose is to send signals to adjust the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system that form the ANS. This has effects on heart rate, digestion, and general feelings of being calm. In general, your vagus nerve has the job of slowing down your heart when it speeds up, to keep it at a steady resilient rate of 70 or below.

This is why the easiest way to activate your vagus nerve to put the neural brake on a racing heart is to slow down your breath. It's almost like a hack for your nervous system—you can do something within your conscious control that has an effect on processes that you otherwise can't directly control.

In effect, if you can get your breathing to leave a stressed state, the rest of the parts of your autonomic nervous system will follow suit, creating a chain reaction that can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and related problems.

Effects

Research is still in its infancy regarding the effects of coherent breathing; however, there is lots of promising news. We know that this type of breathing may be helpful for insomnia, anxiety, depressive symptoms, stress, immune system response, alertness, concentration, vitality, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit disorder

One study showed that levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) increased after a trial of controlled breathing; GABA is important because of its anti-anxiety effects. Another study showed that lower levels of cytokines were found after coherent breathing; these are linked to inflammation and stress.

Getting Started

If you are interested in practicing coherent breathing, the following steps will show you how to get started:

  1. Focus on your natural breaths. Count the length of each inhale and exhale to obtain a baseline.
  2. Find a comfortable position to practice coherent breathing. Place one hand on your stomach.
  3. Breath in for four seconds and then out for four seconds. Do this for one minute.
  4. Repeat, but extend your inhales and exhales to five seconds.
  5. Repeat again, extending further to six seconds.

During this process, keep your hand on your stomach to make sure that you are breathing deeply from your diaphragm and not shallowly from your chest.

You might feel as though you need to take a deep breath or that you can't stop your thoughts from wandering. That's okay! Just bring yourself back to focusing on your breathing and counting the length of your breaths in your head.

If you find that you feel comfortable taking even longer breaths, feel free. Breaths as long as 10 seconds may feel right for some people. It's also okay to have a longer exhale than inhale.

Once you're able to do this for five minutes, gradually work your way up to 20 minutes. You can practice anywhere! In bed at night, while waiting at the doctor's office, or even when driving.

Don't try to force the breath or try to take in more air. This will happen naturally as you lengthen your breaths and get used to how it feels.

Getting Help

You don't have to try and practice coherent breathing all on your own without help. There are several options for you to try if you are having trouble.

Yoga

Join a yoga class. Most yoga classes will involve a breathwork component where you practice this type of breathing. A good instructor will also check to make sure you are not holding your breathing, and are making the most of your breath practice. This sort of group setting could be just the thing to get you breathing in a way that helps to calm your body.

Breathing Workshops

Yes, there are workshops just for breathing! Attend a workshop where you will learn how to practice coherent breathing. Most likely, you will practice with one or two other people and take turns making sure that each of you is doing it correctly. This can be an excellent way to get hands-on instruction and practice in this technique.

Technology

Technology can help you to practice coherent breathing. Download an app for your mobile phone that guides you through the proper lengths of inhaling and exhaling. Smart watches may also have this technology, so check all your devices to see what options are available to you. Even the simplest app could make the difference in helping you breathe correctly for the right length of time.

When Breathing Isn't Helping

If you've been practicing coherent breathing but still feel anxious and depressed, you may be wondering what you're doing wrong. It could be that negative thoughts are making it impossible for your body to stay in a relaxed state.

Other methods such as cognitive-behavioral strategies may be helpful for you to manage these types of thoughts and reduce their impact. A good app to try for this is Woebot, which is a chat app that includes a thought challenger for dealing with negative thoughts.

Other Breathing Exercises

Interested in trying some other breathing exercises? Here are a couple of variations for you to try:

Belly Breathing

Sit on the floor or the edge of a chair. Place your hand on your stomach and as you inhale, lean forward. Then, as you exhale, curl forward to squeeze out your breath. Repeat this 15 to 20 times more.

Energizing breathing

Are you stuck at work and can't get energized? Try energized breathing in a standing position. Bend your elbows and face your palms upward. As you inhale, draw your elbows back and keep your palms up. Then, as you exhale, thrust your palms forward and down and say "HA." Repeat this 15 times.

A Word From Verywell

Coherent breathing is a simple technique that can have a large impact. Try this type of breathing if you are struggling with stress, anxiety, low mood, or other problems to see if it might help. If after practicing coherent breathing you still find that your symptoms are severe, it might be helpful to make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional to discuss your options.

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