When psychology professor and research scientist Dr. Richard Gevirtz set out to investigate the science behind the practices of swamis, yogis, and Zen masters, he discovered that when told to be calm, resilient, and centred, they all uniformly did the same thing. They move their breath rate to a specific slow rate, perform diaphragmatic breathing, and shift into a detached mental attitude. In the West, this technique is known as mindfulness meditation.
Eastern religion practitioners studied this technique as a means to promote better health. Some of these include regulating blood pressure, longer life, improving cardiovascular function and reducing anxiety. The widespread benefits of diaphragmatic breathing (1, 2) in combination with the practice of mindfulness (3, 4) are very well documented today and substantiated by empirical evidence.
Diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness meditation are part of an intrinsic suite of practices. When done in tandem, they provide synergistic effects that contribute to the development of a healthy body and mental-emotional well-being. However, there's more to diaphragmatic breathing that we could take advantage of. It helps us enhance our immune system function, increase resilience, and establish a balance in our mind and body.
It’s not common knowledge to many that there’s a specific diaphragmatic breathing technique that is particularly relevant as we face an unprecedented health crisis and at a time when maintaining good health and mental-emotional wellness are of paramount importance, to help us to rise above our circumstances and prosper.
Before we get into the breathing technique, there are a couple of underlying concepts we need to understand.
Russian physiologist Evgeny Vaschillo discovered that there is a 'resonance frequency' (5) in all living organisms. Resonance frequency confers wide-ranging health benefits and promotes overall mental-emotional wellness and health. The resonance frequency in humans is determined to sit in the low-frequency range at about 0.1 Hz. Research suggests that we can voluntarily increase the amount of heart rate change in the 0.1 Hz frequency range via a specific breathing technique of a specific breathing rate.
This breathing method, known as resonance frequency-based breathing, is mediated by slow, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing of specifically, between 5-7 breaths per minute, against the backdrop of a quiet, positive emotional tone and a relaxed body.
Mathematically, one-tenth of a hertz equals one-tenth of a cycle per second, which means breathing 6 breaths per minute is equivalent to 0.1 Hz. With the aid of HRV biofeedback software and a combination of respiratory, and blood volume pulse sensors, we can monitor the heart and respiratory system. Breathing at a rate of between 5-7 breaths per minute while maintaining a positive emotional tone produces two parallel sinusoidal lines on a computer monitor. These lines represent the heart and the respiratory system coming into synchronization. This is a stark contrast to the chaotic pattern usually seen in a healthy heart when pursuing other activities.
With practice, resonance frequency-focused breathing produces an elevation in the 0.1 Hz low-frequency range in the frequency spectrum. This is called the “meditator’s peak” because it represents a profound physiological calm frequently seen in experienced meditators.
The Role of Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the inter-beat interval or distance between one beat of the heart and the next. It's an adaptive quality in a healthy person and an important index of how well the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is performing. It regulates HRV and responds to internal and external demands, or stressors (6).
Research provides conclusive evidence that HRV is a non-invasive prognostic metric. For example, a decrease in HRV is associated with mental-emotional dysregulation, including conditions such as anxiety and depression (7). In addition, a low HRV predicts a higher probability of death after a heart attack (8). On the other hand, a higher HRV is linked to a better-perceived ability to regulate emotion and impulsive behaviour associated with negative emotions (9). It's been found to also reduce asthma symptoms (10).
The Autonomic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems
To help us understand the significance and critical role HRV plays in the promotion of overall health and mental-emotional well-being, we'd need to dig into the science. First off, what is the autonomic nervous system? The autonomic nervous system is a system that operates independently of voluntary control. It is responsible for, among other things, exciting or inhibiting cardiac muscles, digestion, and glandular activities, such as salivation. At any given time, the hypothalamus unconsciously stimulates or relaxes certain functions via signals from the ANS. This is done to maintain homeostasis in the body. The ANS has two sub-divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic branch is commonly known as the fight, flight or freeze mechanism. This system kicks in when we experience psychological or physiological stress. In that regard, an athlete that over-trains for competition may trigger the sympathetic nervous system activation as much as a heated argument with your spouse, or an emotionally traumatic experience like a car accident. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the rest, digest, and renew response. This system activates when our mind is free from worrisome thoughts and our body is relieved of tension. In the modern context, developing an inordinate degree of work-related anxiety, poor sleep quality, and lack of exercise, is more likely to upset the ANS balance in favour of the sympathetic branch.
Here's the good news! We can voluntarily and positively influence HRV to realign the ANS balance with resonance frequency diaphragmatic breathing. Unlike other techniques which focus exclusively on the withdrawal of the sympathetic response, resonance frequency diaphragmatic breathing produces an activation of the parasympathetic system, which thereby exercises or enhances the balance of the two branches of the ANS.
How To Do The Resonance Frequency Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique
Make Resonance Frequency Breathing a Ritual.
With such an overwhelming list of far-reaching undeniable benefits, now is the best time to begin the practice of resonance frequency diaphragmatic breathing. If you are new to abdominal breathing techniques, don't worry. A simple way to ease into the habit is to begin slowly by making the same number of counts in the inhalation and exhalation phases. It would be helpful to be able to visually see the rise and fall of the abdomen as you practice. To help do that first, find a lightweight plastic object you can easily find, such as a bottle cap or a pillbox. When you are ready, place the plastic object on your abdomen as you lie flat on your back.
Steps to Resonance Frequency Diaphragmatic Breathing:
- Count silently in your mind “one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand” as you inhale through your nose.
- As you inhale, visualize a balloon filling up your abdominal region as you see the object elevate.
- Continue counting as you exhale through your mouth.
- Visualize the balloon in your abdominal region contracting as the plastic object descends.
- Counting quietly helps you focus on your breathing and blocks any distracting thoughts.
- As you feel more relaxed, gradually increase the exhalation phase by one count until you reach a count of 6.
Things to keep in mind:
- During the inhalation phase, let go of all the tension it took you to inhale. Pause for half a second before you begin the exhalation phase.
- As you exhale, drop your shoulders and jaw.
- Empty your lungs of air at the end of the exhalation phase. Stop for half a second before resuming your next inhalation phase.
- Make your breathing action as smooth as possible. Don't rush to suck in or expel too quickly. To get you into the habit, we’ve created a simple breathing pacer to help you practice resonance frequency respiration easily and correctly.
Cultivating positive emotion
Happiness researchers have been right all along. Positive emotion is the secret sauce to psychological wellbeing and health. Regardless of the frequency of your diaphragmatic breathing practice, an undercurrent of negative emotion blocks our resonance frequency. Studies by Ironson suggest that just the mere thought of anger produces spasms in arteries. Anger and bitterness eliminate heart rate coherence or the orderliness of the heart rhythms (11).
During anger, when one experiences negative emotion, a line graph that tracks heart rates using a photoplethysmograph becomes ragged, irregular, whereas, during positive emotion, a smooth sinusoidal line with greater amplitude in variation is seen.