By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
Slow Paced Breathing or SPB for short is a relaxation technique in which slow and purposeful breaths are used to help increase Vagal Tone which has been shown to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Vagal Tone is a measurement of the activity of the central nervous system, specifically the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for the regulation of the body at rest. This includes heart rate reduction, dilation/constriction of blood vessels, activity regulation in the heart, lunges, digestive tract, liver, immune system and other parts of the body. To summarize, when Vagal Tone is increased, the body is in a more restful and relaxed state.
How can slow paced breathing affect vagal tone?
Whenever you are undergoing periods of increased stress, anxiety, tension or heightened awareness in your environment, this is your body’s “flight or fight” response to your current circumstances, whatever they may be. It is a good thing in the short term, but it can be dangerous if it persists for extended periods of time. Conditions including chronic stress, chronic anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome and others are all different manifestations of this and can lead to negative health effects, reduced capability to act as well as inability to interact safely with your environment.
Unfortunately, our daily lives are full of stressors and things that add to the anxiety, stress, tension and other issues. 2020 alone has been a stressful year and people are really struggling to maintain composure while dealing with a degradation of overall mental health as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, protests, fires, and countless other stressors.
When you practice slow paced breathing exercises, you are expanding your lungs and relaxing the diaphragm muscle to inhale while consciously exhaling on a specific rhythm. This has a way of forcefully relaxing your muscles to help your chest expand and increasing vagal tone which lowers your heart rate. Psychologically, the focus on your breathing rhythm acts as a form of mindfulness meditation to keep you focus on the present moment. Studies have shown that 15 minutes of slow-paced breathing a day can have a positive effect on reducing anxiety levels, improving stress management and improving performance. (Laborde, Allen, Göhring, & Dosseville, 2016; Kromenacker, Sanova, Marcus, Allen, & Lane, 2018; Russo, Santarelli, & O’Rourke, 2017)
Slow Paced Breathing is easy to do, free and can be done at anytime, anywhere and by everybody.
The biggest question is when is the best time to do slow paced breathing? Unfortunately, I cannot answer that for you, because only you can. Forgive me for sounding like an after school special, but it really is up to you to experiment different times of the day to find where it fits in best with your schedule, mood and motivation to get it done. All that matters is that you set aside 15 minutes per day to do it. Remember the information about stress management? If you are anticipating a stressful situation coming up such as a presentation, meeting, competition or other event, you might try doing slow paced breathing in the lead up to it. This can help you feel more leveled and prepared to handle to situation.
Sounds great! What do I do?
Once your 15 minutes is done, stretch yourself out and go about the rest of your day. Make it apart of your daily routine so you will start to see the long-term benefit on your overall daily life.
By Dirk Smith
Kromenacker, B. W., Sanova, A. A., Marcus, F. I., Allen, J. J., & Lane, R. D. (2018). Vagal Mediation of Low Frequency Heart Rate Variability During Slow Yogic Breathing. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1. doi:10.1097/psy.0000000000000603
Laborde, S., Allen, M. S., Göhring, N., & Dosseville, F. (2016). The effect of slow-paced breathing on stress management in adolescents with intellectual disability. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 61(6), 560-567. doi:10.1111/jir.12350
Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, 13(4), 298-309. doi:10.1183/20734735.009817
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.