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Coherent Breathing And Mental/Physical Health (Part 1)

human_body_lungsBreathing is something so simple and basic that people seldom give it any thought. The importance of proper breathing should not be underestimated.  Believe it or not, your breathing style significantly impacts how you feel, think, and act.  In fact, researchers* have identified 6 distinctive breathing styles.  Today’s post will cover the “incoherent breathing style.”

The diaphragm is a special muscle that creates mechanical lung movement during breathing, and how nature intended us to breath.  The diaphragm contracts on inhale and relaxes on exhale. The diaphragm can be controlled by non-conscious processes or through conscious intention.  A complete breath cycle is defined as one inhale followed by one exhale, and the average breath rate is 15-18 breaths per minute (BPM). To break this down further, when breathing at 15 BPM, on average you inhale for 2 seconds and exhale for 2 seconds (1 complete breath every 4 seconds, which gives 15 breaths in 1 minute [60 seconds/4 = 15]).

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is another vital concept.  “Autonomic”  was coined due to the original belief that the ANS was an automatic system and not subject to conscious control.  However, this turned out to be false with some body processes when the field of biofeedback demonstrated that people can indeed influence heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), skin temperature, muscle tension, sweat glands, and brainwaves (EEG) with training.  The ANS breaks into 2 easy to remember divisions (1) Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) = “fight or flight” and (2) Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) = “rest and digest.”  The SNS and PNS connect throughout the body to control a wide variety of functions, such as heart rate, gastrointestinal secretions, blood pressure, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.  A tricky thing the SNS/PNS try to do is to coordinate things like heart rate, blood pressure, and blood vessel size (dilation/constriction) on each individual inhale and exhale. ANS/PNS ideally work in harmony, but when chronically stressed they are imbalanced.

People with high anxiety tend to breath in a distinct pattern that usually involves short, shallow, and rapid breaths. Additionally, breathing shifts from the diaphragm area to the lungs. When viewed on computer, the heart rate looks erratic with sharp, jagged peaks and valleys and decreased heart rate variability (HRV). You can view this here (look at Figure 8).  This is referred to as “incoherent breathing.”  Incoherent breathing activates the fight or flight system (SNS) and some people with chronic anxiety actually live in a “sympathetic dominant state” – you’ve met these folks – they are high strung and stressed out.  Remember the fight or flight system is designed to protect you in emergencies and not meant to stay on high alert all the time. You can imagine the consequences of running a car in the red for extended periods of time! Even the “average” breathing rate of 18 BPM is sometimes fast enough to activate the fight or flight system.

The consequences of incoherent breathing are felt system wide as physical, cognitive (thought), and emotional systems react as if there were a immediate danger (“fight or flight”), which then leads to a state of physiological (and emotional) chaos.  Elliott’s** research finds that incoherent breathing leads to emotional moodiness, anxiety, tension, decreased short term memory, high blood pressure and heart rate, poor interpersonal communication, and muddled thinking (the full list is here).   Do these symptoms sounds familiar? They are common to many mental and physical health issues.

11/29/09 Update: Please review Stephen Elliott’s excellent BMED Report article “An Introduction to Coherent Breathing” for information on the benefits of coherent breathing. This article can be considered a Part 2 to the current Part 1 article as Stephen does a wonderful job of covering the benefits of coherent breathing.



*McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Tomasino, D., & Bradley, R. (2006). The Coherent Heart: Heart-Brain interactions, psychophysiological coherence, and the emergence of system-wide ordericon. Boulder Creek: Institute of Heartmath.

**Elliott, S. & Edmonson, D. (2005). The New Science of Breath – 2nd Edition. Spring: Wynot Books.

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