Clearly one of the secrets, if I dare use that word, to freediving if not stress management in our day to day lives is the control of our breath. I (Clinton Laurence) often ask both new freedivers on courses and patients in my private psychology practice how often do they breathe in one minute. I would say that 99% of people have no idea of this figure. This is very surprising given the importance of breathing to our life! It also indicates that people have little conscious awareness of this process. Answers typically go as high as 30 breaths per minute. This would be inhaling and exhaling every two seconds.
In fact, such a high rate of breathing is more typical of a patient having a panic attack. Breathing 20 to 25 times a minute is more suggestive of a heart attack though of course many patients who present in emergency departments of hospitals think the former when in fact they are later told after many exhaustive tests they were having a panic attack.
So what is a normal breathing frequency? St Johns First Aid courses suggest that a normal (or is that average?) frequency is 14 to 16 breaths per minute. Whether this is a healthy frequency of breathing to my knowledge has not been scientifically determined (but if any readers have any evidence on this please email me these links).
However, what is clear is that breathing frequency is affecting our nervous systems. A high rate of breathing is clearly activating our Sympathetic Nervous System or flight, fight and freeze nervous system. In other words breathing quickly will increase our arousal and activation. This is certainly shown in people experiencing a panic attack. Unfortunately another side effect of fast breathing is the removal of carbon dioxide from our bodies which is also the removal of the trigger to breathe. Paradoxically people breathing faster experience tingly feelings in extremities, light headedness and dizziness. They think this is the sign of an impending heart attack. More likely an impending black out if they continue to OVER BREATHE or hyperventilate.
Medical advice is to encourage patients to breathe deeply and slowly but this rarely works. Why? Because patients often continue to over breathe. This is the first time patients often focus and become aware of their breathing. They may be breathing slower (compared to having a panic attack) but it still might be too high. In addition they are using chest breathing which often results in bigger volume inhales compared to normal. The end result is either a too high a frequency of breathing possibly combined with too big an inhale. It is still over breathing leading to activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System and loss of carbon dioxide.
The desired frequency of breathing to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System or the nervous system of rest, relaxation and recovery is not clear but some researchers suggest under 10 breaths per minute. The evidence from heart rate variability studies (see Lehrer & Gevirtz, 2014) or the heart beat to heart beat interval variations suggest that the ideal breathing rate could well be 5 to 7 breaths per minute. Typically, without using costly testing to determine this figure, 6 breaths per minute is recommended. Apparently, the greatest amount of oxygen is diffused from the aveoli in our lungs to our blood at this rate. I think this figure is very important number for both patients trying to overcome panic attacks and freedivers trying to hold their breath longer.
The final part of the equation is the part of our lungs we use to breath. Of course, the above breathing frequencies are those suggested at rest. We are not exercising when breathing frequencies increase dramatically Our goal is to be as calm and as relaxed as possible. All movement has been reduced or even stopped – except for breathing. In this state we only need to use belly breathing or more appropriately called diaphragmatic breathing. That is, as we inhale, our belly gets bigger. As we breathe out, our belly gets smaller. We do not need to use the upper part of our lungs or chest as we do not need this extra oxygen given our minimal movement.
There is one part of the puzzle that still needs to be explained and that is whether our inhales and exhales are of the same duration? Science is not clear on this answer but it has been suggested by both scientists and expert freedivers that exhales need to be twice as long as inhales. It is clear that longer exhales help in lowering the heart rate and therefore if the goal is to be as calm as possible aim for longer exhalations.
In summary if your goal is to be as calm and as relaxed as possible follow these simple guidelines:
- Breath slowly by aiming for 6 breaths per minute.
- Exhales need to be of longer duration than inhales, possibly twice as long.
- Use diaphragmatic breathing.
- Whatever position you are in minimize all movement.
- Continue for a minimum of 5 minutes.
- Practice, practice, practice.
Notice I have added a further two points. Patients and freedivers make the most common mistake of only doing it a few times (at best) and thinking the skills can be mastered in a week or two. Real and prolonged relaxation that can be applied in a time of stress can only be mastered with extensive practice. I am tempted to say years.
Lehrer, Paul M., & Gevirtz, R. Heart rate variability biofeedback: How and why does it work? Frontier Psychology, 2014, 5, 756. Click for online article here.