Four ways the resonance breath technique can support your mental health
There’s an ever-changing yearning for homeostasis within our body. Through our breathing, we search for this balance, engaging two branches of our autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic branch, which speeds things up and readies us for action, and the parasympathetic, which slows things down, and facilitates rest.
With every full cycle of our breath we activate these branches, altering the chemistry in our body, our heart rate, the brain’s neural circuits associated with awareness and memory and, ultimately, the emotional state we experience.
With the resonance breath technique, we bring intention to this autonomic process, harnessing it for our wellbeing. By slowing down your breathing to around five to six breaths a minute, with an equal inhalation and exhalation, you can positively affect your emotional wellbeing and build resilience to stress.
Following these next steps, I’ll take you through the science and biology behind this practice, and just what makes it so powerful. And at the end of this article, with the help of a guided meditation, you’ll have the chance to give it a try yourself. Let’s go.
1. Slowing down our breath encourages feelings of safety
Although the autonomic nervous system functions automatically, it can still be influenced. With conscious breathing, we can guide our mind and body into a particular state. Often, our intention is to slow things down, to find calm and peace of mind.
When we slow our inhalation down, through the expansion of our lungs, our sympathetic nervous system eases off a bit, and then on the exhale we get more time for the parasympathetic qualities to register. The message to our body here is: I am safe, I can relax. Good mental health so often begins with a feeling of safety.
2. Breathing like a baby gets you extra parasympathetic bonus points
There’s a reason why meditation and yoga teachers, therapists, or anyone else trying to assist with relaxation, recommend breathing through your belly. Abdominal breathing is the most efficient and relaxed way of getting air into our lungs.
When we breathe through the upper chest, which is associated with a fight-or-flight response, we send subtle signals to the sympathetic branch. Breathing like a baby, through our abdomen, activates our parasympathetic branch – the neurotransmitter acetylcholine gets released, blood vessels dilate, and your heart rate reduces. As little ones, this was an automatic process to support sleep and digestion. As adults, we reclaim it for our mental health.
3. Variation in your heartbeat – that’s a good thing!
The specific power of the resonance breath is in the affect it can have on our heart rate variability, which is a good indicator of our physical and emotional health. It’s measured through the variation in time between our individual heartbeats. We are looking for high variability – that’s a strong indicator of good health – whereas decreased variability can be an indicator of stress.
When your parasympathetic branch is at play, the heartbeat slows down, and there’s more room for the variation. That said, if you experience an irregular heartbeat without stimulation, it might be worth visiting your GP, as this could be a sign of an underlying problem.
The message to our body here is: I am safe, I can relax. Good mental health so often begins with a feeling of safety
4. Equal in and out breaths, of around five to six a minute, create a resonance frequency
Research has shown the frequency and ratio of the breath is key. An optimal number of in-and-out breaths is around five to six a minute – but it’ll vary slightly for each individual. If you can get these flowing equally, you’ll gradually encourage your body’s respiratory and circulatory systems to bring your heart rate and breathing into coherence.
Through the synchrony of heart and breath, we stimulate these systems at their resonance frequency. And by doing so, we create a healthy resonance state within our physiology, helping to lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol, and change our heart rate.
It’s the stimulation of our vagus nerve, the one that wanders between our brain, gut, and many other organs, which plays a big part in this. Through the resonance frequency we increase its tone, which in turns increases our capability to relax after feeling stressed.
This isn’t anything particularly spiritual, it’s biology, and a beautiful example of how we can affect our mind through our body, and our body through our mind.
Give it a go
I’ve created a guided meditation to take you through this practice – search ‘Ben Douch Counselling and Psychotherapy’ on soundcloud.com. It begins with easing into the body, and connecting with our abdominal breathing. Once settled, a sound will gently guide your breathing in and out for around 10 minutes. We'll end with a few moments of relaxation where you can absorb the results of your resonance breath practice.
Grab a set of earphones, and find a place where you won’t be disturbed for the next 15 minutes. Sitting up, or lying down, put the world away for a moment and press play.
Ben Douch is a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist based in north-east London.