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The Most Significant Stress Management Mistake – Are You Making It?

If I asked you to relax using whatever relaxation technique you like, there's a good chance that the first thing you'd think of to try would be breathing in a certain way, probably deep slow breathing. In my experience of working with clients, this is the most commonly used relaxation technique.

The trouble is, most people, when they try it, actually end up over-breathing. Over-breathing is also known as hyperventilation, which most people know about in association with panic attacks. A classic panic attack is an extreme form of hyperventilation, but over-breathing can be mild as well. If you're in extreme hyperventilation you'll know about it – you'll be gasping for breath – but you probably wouldn't recognise mild over-breathing. Again that's based on experience with clients.

In my office I use a device (a capnometer) that can measure the degree of over-breathing, and I see a lot of people initially induce over-breathing when they try to relax.

The problem with over-breathing is that it reduces oxygen delivery to brain cells – and so it's far from an optimal form of breathing. (In my next article I'll explain how this happens.)

It's true that over-breathing can still work as a relaxation technique (although for many people it will make them feel worse). But even when it seems to work, it's probably inducing a "spaced-out" kind of relaxation, maybe even slightly foggy-headed. It's because the brain is (paradoxically) getting less oxygen, and won't work so well. Again, even if it is relaxing it's not optimal breathing.

Heart Coherence & Over-breathing

Another popular tool for relaxation and stress management is HRV biofeedback or heart coherence biofeedback, which you can do using a device that can measure heart rate. Probably products from HeathMath are best known (e.g. Inner Balance, EmWave).

Most people who try it, find that the best way to achieve heart coherence (which is the aim of the exercise) is to breath deeply, slowly and regularly (in fact a breathing rate of about s 6 breaths per minute seems to be best).

But again, what I see is that a lot of people are inducing a degree of over-breathing in the process.

Don't get me wrong, I think HRV biofeedback is an excellent tool. I use it myself in my stress resilience training programme, but I teach clients to optimise their brain oxygen supply first (in other words I teach them not to over-breathe) using capnometry biofeedback.

Coming up soon in this series on my stress resilience blueprint is an article explaining in more depth how over-breathing causes problems.

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