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Optimal Breathing Training With Biofeedback

Dysregulated breathing can significantly impair brain performance and contribute to everyday problems such as:

  • stress, anxiety, panic, irritability and anger
  • brain fog - poor focus and concentration, cognitive problems
  • fatigue, low energy, low motivation, low mood
  • stress-related symptoms such as insomnia, headaches and IBS

Poor breathing patterns are both common and largely unrecognized, even by health professionals, therapists and coaches.

Conversely learning to breathe well can create a platform for optimal brain function: clear focus and thinking, emotional wellbeing, and energy and motivation.

Why Is Optimal Breathing So Important In Stress Management?

To answer this question, we need to consider the nature of the mind-body connection - this is the notion that how we think, feel and act is reflected in our body physiology. And vice versa - it's very much a two-way connection.

Stress affects breathing. When something stressful happens, even if it's just a passing thought, the body reacts, typically by preparing for "fight or flight". This stress response can be prominent and unpleasant or so mild that you don't really notice it (especially if you're wrapped up in your thoughts). For example, muscles tighten up, as though bracing against a threat.

How Does Stress Affect Breathing?

Breathing muscles such as the diaphragm can tighten up too, and we tend not to let the air all the way out. This shifts us into a pattern of shallow, rapid chest breathing.

How Does Stressed Breathing Affect Brain Performance?

In short, because this pattern of chest breathing:

  • tends to create over-breathing (hyperventilation)
  • shifts the balance in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which unconsciously regulates a lot of body functions.

Let's unpack this.

Over-breathing & Why It's A Problem

Over-breathing is a problem because (in the short term) it causes a significant reduction in oxygen delivery to brain cells. In extreme cases (e.g. a classic panic attack) it can be as much as 60%. In mild cases it might be only 10 or 20% - but here's the thing: mild over-breathing is common and largely unrecognized as over-breathing. It can lead to poor focus and emotional volatility.

If you think hyperventilation is not relevant to you, think again. My experience is that in the large majority of stress cases over-breathing is part of the story, at least to some extent or in some context.

Autonomic Balance & Relaxation

The ANS manages our physiological arousal level. When breathing is slow, regular and abdominal, it activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, the branch of the ANS responsible for relaxation, rest and rejuvenation. The parasympathetic also engages the brain's social systems.

Conversely, the stressed pattern of rapid shallow chest breathing shifts the ANS balance towards the Sympathetic NS. Getting stuck in sympathetic dominance means you're likely to feel agitated, edgy, and unable switch off.

What Is Optimal Breathing?

There's not just one optimal breathing pattern - what constitutes optimal depends on the context. It's going to be different if you're in bed trying to get to sleep, compared to in the office giving a presentation.

But whatever the context, and excepting cases of physical activity, optimal breathing is likely to involve:

  • Gentle breathing (the opposite of over-breathing) so that oxygen delivery to brain cells is optimal. This can happen even if the breathing is fast, but it's generally easier if breathing is slow.
  • Breathing from the bottom of the lungs, where gas exchange is more efficient. This happens when you breathe abdominally, with the breathing muscles fully softening so the exhalation goes all the way out.

Optimal Breathing Training

It's hard to change thoughts and emotions on their own level - a better strategy is to work to change the physiological conditions that underpin them. That's what optimal breathing training is about - creating the biological basis for calm, clear focus, emotional positivity, and energy, motivation and willpower.

Consistent practice of slow regular, abdominal breathing is a way to exercise and strengthen the parasympathetic NS, (and thus, heart coherence). You're not going to breathe like this all the time, and you don't need to, but regular practice will build ANS fitness, and resilience to stress and anxiety.

The Stress Resilient Mind Programme: Home Training With Biofeedback

In my business I focus on teaching optimal breathing skills using biofeedback, as a basis for building stress resilience and emotional intelligence. Biofeedback is a learning tool - it works by measuring physiological changes associated with stress, and also with resourceful states.

My programme is based on three key biofeedback parameters:

  • EMG or muscle tension - working with this parameter helps you shift into comfortable adbominal breathing
  • Capnometry - a capnometer is a device that can detect your degree of over-breathing (which is otherwise very hard to judge). Feedback can guide you into a state of optimal oxygen delivery to brain cells.
  • HRV or Heart Coherence - exercising and strengthening the parasympathetic NS, and also the brain's social and executive functioning.

How You Can Access Optimal Breathing Training With Biofeedback

My aim is to make optimal breathing training with biofeedback as accessible and cost-effective as possible.

My services are based around:

  • An online (video-based) biofeedback training course - designed to give you the key information, ideas and practices to make working with biofeedback a success.
  • Biofeedback device rental, so that you can practice at home with the three key biofeedback modalities listed above.
  • One to one coaching, either in my office in York or via telephone or skype for those further afield.
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