How it works, why you need it, and how to do it right

‍If you’ve been looking for ways to deal with stress at work, some 'no-pill sleep aid,' or are simply interested in biohacking your health, chances are you’ve come across resonance breathing. As one of the most effective, and completely natural, non-medical ways to manage stress and sleep, resonance breathing (or coherent breathing) has grown in popularity.

‍However, there’s much more to it than a simple relaxation practice.

‍Here, you’ll find the 'Whats,' the 'Whys,' and the 'Hows' of resonance breathing. You'll learn about its mechanisms, benefits, and how this powerful breathing technique helps athletes, military professionals, mental health workers, individuals with stressful jobs, and anyone who is on the path to a healthier, more productive, and stress-proof life.

Breathing affects you more than you think

‍We can live up to three days without water and survive three weeks without food, but without oxygen, we couldn't last more than three minutes. On average, an adult at rest takes between 12 and 18 breaths per minute.

‍Everyone knows the vital role of breathing; however, its role surpasses simple oxygen intake and carbon dioxide elimination. Breathing affects our metabolism and our circulatory and autonomic nervous systems (ANS).

‍What’s interesting is that while breathing affects ANS activity, the ANS also regulates breathing. In fact, the ANS controls many bodily functions from heart and breathing rates to emotions and stress.

‍So, while the ANS controls breathing (among other things), we can also influence it through particular breathing practices to impact our emotions, digestion, cardiac health, and even cognition.

The autonomic nervous system and breathing

‍What's the first thing you do when you want to know if your baby or your dog is relaxed, excited, or afraid? You check their breathing pace.

‍Breathing is the language used by our autonomic nervous system to speak to our body and mind. And it works the other way around - if you want to "talk" to your ANS and influence the state of your body and mind, breathe differently.

‍The ANS is divided into two main parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), responsible for our "fight or flight" response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), activated as the body's "rest and digest" response:

  • ‍The SNS turns on when there's a threat, danger, or excitement by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate, which prepares the body for action.
  • The PNS takes the stage when we're relaxed, with no threats or alerts. It slows down the heart rate and reduces blood pressure, helping the body recover from stress, which feels like calmness and reduced muscle tension.

‍Scientists have found that we can significantly impact our PNS with different relaxation techniques.

‍In other words, we can literally breathe our way out of stress.

The question is: how do you do it effectively?

The evolving science and power of resonance breathing

‍Several slow-breathing techniques can trigger our PNS and its calming effect on our mind and body. Still, none proved to be as effective as resonance breathing. In a way, resonance breathing hacks our nervous system to activate the PNS, reducing stress and improving cardiac health, focus, productivity, and cognition.

‍What's really happening during resonance breathing is that your heart, brain, and lungs are being synchronized. By deepening your breathing and slowing it down to the right pace, your PNS starts to swing together with your breathing. This gives your heart and brain a calmness boost with every exhalation and, in the long run, improves the balance in your nervous system.

‍Some forms of resonance breathing have existed since ancient times and are connected to Eastern meditation and breathwork practices. For example, research from 1999 found that Zen Buddhist monks breathe in the resonance frequency range during their rituals [1].

‍However, the technique itself is different from meditation or spiritual practices. Resonance breathing is a breathwork technique based on scientific evidence, evolving in recent years, with an increasing number of studies and scientific research done worldwide. Because of its radical mental and physical benefits, it has started to have more applications in fields like cardiology, psychology, and sports.

How it works: The mechanics of resonance breathing

‍Resonance breathing is based on the interplay of the following:

‍- parasympathetic nervous system

- heart rate

- blood pressure

‍We already mentioned that when the body is in a state of rest, the PNS is in charge. Think of the PNS as the director of the orchestra. Here's what the 'symphony' looks like.

Restful state

  • When you breathe in, you create a slightly negative pressure in your chest for airflow. The negative pressure is also propagated to the cardiovascular system and causes your blood pressure to slightly drop.
  • This is further sensed by the baroreceptors (tiny nerve endings in your arteries tasked to monitor and control blood pressure), sending a signal to increase the heart rate. But it's not just the baroreceptors; the brain stem also needs more efficient oxygen transport. So during inhalation, the brain is also programmed to signal for the heart rate to increase.
  • Due to these combined processes, your heart rate goes up every time you inhale and down when you exhale. The difference between these variables is the heart rate variability - the well-known HRV. We can tell a lot about someone's health by monitoring their HRV. A higher HRV represents a healthy, well-functioning PNS and a body better adapted to changes.
  • The increase in heart rate also boosts blood pressure after every inhale (and decreases it with each exhale), but the blood pressure fluctuations have a five-second delay. This is an entirely normal occurrence during a regular breathing pace.

Resonance state

  • The real magic happens when you breathe just at the right frequency: at about four to seven breaths per minute. Why? Because that's when the delayed pressure increase, caused by inhalation, is synchronized with the natural pressure increase during exhalation [2]. That's when the heart rate and your body's pressure system achieve a natural resonance frequency - hence the name ‘resonance breathing' – which feels exceptionally calming and pleasant.
  • What happens next during this 'just-right frequency' of breathing - when the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate are all in sync – is a massive HRV boost. When the technique is done correctly, resonance breathing makes blood pressure and heart rate swing by a significant amount: with every inhale and exhale, it can go up/down +/-25 beats per minute (BPM). It's like pushing a children's swing at the right pace to make it swing higher.
  • While the boosted HRV effect of resonance breathing can be felt immediately, regular practice makes things even more interesting. That's because big spikes in the baroreflex, and the parasympathetic activity, in resonance breathing, act like a training stimulus for the nervous system [2, 3, 4, 5]. In other words, regularly practicing resonance breathing can train your nerves, like muscles, to become more resilient to stressors.

Long-term benefits

Breathing in resonance has a multitude of positive effects on your physical and mental state. There is strong evidence proving the many benefits of resonance breathing, such as:

  • Resilience to stress – Remember how a higher HRV score means the body is healthier and better prepared for changes? Well, if you had a stressful event but practiced resonance breathing right before it, your HRV would stay intact or just slightly drop [6,7]. Even better things happen in the long run with regular practice. Training your nervous system with consistent resonance breathing, and providing regular HRV boosts, can significantly reduce chronic stress [8,9] and provide a more resilient physical reaction to stressors [10].
  • Improved sleep quality – Due to its calming, relaxation mode, resonance breathing can help you fall asleep more easily [11] and stay in the super-restful state of 'deep sleep' longer [12]. A study that was done on 50 participants also found that resonance breathing affects the total sleep duration, prolonging it by an average of 29 minutes [13]. Other research showed how it enhanced overall sleep quality (PSQI index) [11, 12, 14], and how practicing resonance breathing before bedtime improved HRV during sleep [15].
  • Sharpened focus & greater productivity - Improved cognitive performance comes with reduced stress levels and mental clarity. The technique is proven to enhance concentration and physical [16,17] as well as mental performance [18,19] while reducing fatigue [20]. Great news for STEM students and professionals: resonance breathing is proven to enhance mathematical thinking, focus, and performance [18].
  • More emotional balance, less anxiety and burnout - By practicing resonance breathing, you can achieve greater levels of calmness and improve overall well-being. It brings about general positive mental effects [21,22] and lowers performance anxiety [16, 10] and burnout symptoms [18], leading to a more fulfilling life.

Recovering from mental fatigue

Various professions, such as healthcare workers, software developers, lawyers, and air traffic controllers, require constant decision-making and intense focus over extended periods. This can lead to mental fatigue, affecting decision-making ability and overall cognitive function, reducing productivity, and increasing errors.

Taking a 10-minute resonance breathing break can give your brain an "instant recharge," or a "nerve power nap," and allow it to recover. With its stress-reduction and relaxation powers, resonance breathing helps intellectual workers bounce back quickly and improve cognitive function and decision-making ability.

Also Read: Find Calm in Chaos: Resonance Technique for Panic Relief

How can you do it?

Ready to try resonance breathing for yourself? Great! Let's get started.

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
  • Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth at a slow, steady pace.
  • Try to count between 4.5 and 7 breaths per minute.
  • Use either symmetrical or natural breathing. Symmetrical breathing involves inhaling and exhaling for the same amount of time. In contrast, natural breathing involves inhaling for a shorter time than exhaling.

‍While the practice is pretty straightforward, it isn't easy to monitor how your body responds to the breathing pace you’re practicing. The resonance state gives a strong calming effect. However, it’s difficult to tell when you’ve hit your body's resonance frequency and whether your practice is effective.

‍Luckily, Oxa can help you monitor your body's vitals and optimize your breathing pace to achieve resonance frequency during the session.

Learn More: Improve HRV: 5 Breathing Techniques for Better Health

Mastering resonance breathing with Oxa

If you want to find your body's true resonance, you need real-time biofeedback. The Oxa breathing exercise device is the only wearable that makes this possible.

Oxa's resonance breathing experience is two-fold: it teaches you this powerful slow-breathing technique and captures your body's vital signs for practice optimization during the session.

You can see a live display of how your body calms with every guided breath while responding to Oxa's immersive audio feedback. In addition, Oxa will provide changing soundscapes and visuals when you reach the resonance state.

[1] Lehrer, Paul, Yuji Sasaki, and Yoshihiro Saito. "Zazen and cardiac variability." Psychosomatic medicine 61.6 (1999): 812-821.

‍[2] Sevoz-Couche, Caroline, and Sylvain Laborde. "Heart rate variability and slow-paced breathing: when coherence meets resonance." Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (2022): 104576.

[3] Lehrer, Paul M., et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback increases baroreflex gain and peak expiratory flow." Psychosomatic medicine 65.5 (2003): 796-805.

[4] Lehrer, Paul M., and Richard Gevirtz. "Heart rate variability biofeedback: how and why does it work?." Frontiers in psychology (2014): 756.

[5] Lehrer, Paul. "How does heart rate variability biofeedback work? Resonance, the baroreflex, and other mechanisms." Biofeedback 41.1 (2013): 26-31.

[6] Prinsloo, Gabriell E., et al. "The effect of a single session of short duration biofeedback-induced deep breathing on measures of heart rate variability during laboratory-induced cognitive stress: a pilot study." Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 38 (2013): 81-90.

[7] Lewis, Gregory F., et al. "Relaxation training assisted by heart rate variability biofeedback: Implication for a military predeployment stress inoculation protocol." Psychophysiology 52.9 (2015): 1167-1174..

[8] Purwandini Sutarto, Auditya, Muhammad Nubli Abdul Wahab, and Nora Mat Zin. "Resonant breathing biofeedback training for stress reduction among manufacturing operators." International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics 18.4 (2012): 549-561.

[9] Van Der Zwan, Judith Esi, et al. "Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: a randomized controlled trial." Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 40 (2015): 257-268.

[10] Deschodt-Arsac, Veronique, et al. "Effects of heart rate variability biofeedback training in athletes exposed to stress of university examinations." PloS one 13.7 (2018): e0201388.

[11] Tsai, H. J., et al. "Efficacy of paced breathing for insomnia: enhances vagal activity and improves sleep quality." Psychophysiology 52.3 (2015): 388-396.

[12] Li, QinLong, et al. "Presleep Heart-Rate Variability Biofeedback Improves Mood and Sleep Quality in Chinese Winter Olympic Bobsleigh Athletes." International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 17.10 (2022): 1516-1526.

[13] Mercadel, Joshua. Effect of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback on Sleep. Diss. University of South Carolina, 2019.

[14] Lin, I-Mei, et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback increased autonomic activation and improved symptoms of depression and insomnia among patients with major depression disorder." Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience 17.2 (2019): 222.

[15] Sakakibara, Masahito, et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback improves cardiorespiratory resting function during sleep." Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 38 (2013): 265-271.

[16] Paul, Maman, and Kanupriya Garg. "The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback on performance psychology of basketball players." Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 37 (2012): 131-144.

[17] Strack, Benjamin William. Effect of heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback on batting performance in baseball. Alliant International University, San Diego, 2003.

[18] May, Ross W., et al. "Self-regulatory biofeedback training: an intervention to reduce school burnout and improve cardiac functioning in college students." Stress 22.1 (2019): 1-8.

[19] Prinsloo, Gabriell E., et al. "The effect of short duration heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback on cognitive performance during laboratory induced cognitive stress." Applied Cognitive Psychology 25.5 (2011): 792-801.

[20] Windthorst, Petra, et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback therapy and graded exercise training in management of chronic fatigue syndrome: An exploratory pilot study." Journal of psychosomatic research 93 (2017): 6-13.

[21] Lehrer, Paul, et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback improves emotional and physical health and performance: A systematic review and meta analysis." Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 45 (2020): 109-129.

[22] Fournié, Claire, et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback in chronic disease management: A systematic review." Complementary therapies in medicine 60 (2021): 102750.

[23] Economides, Marcos, et al. "Feasibility and efficacy of the addition of heart rate variability biofeedback to a remote digital health intervention for depression." Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 45 (2020): 75-86.

Angelina Sarycheva
May 28, 2024

MA, CPT accredited by The International Sports Science Association, is a health writer and Content Lead at Oxa Life. With over five years in the health and wellness industry, her expertise, rooted in hands-on experience with leading wellness brands, is to deliver impactful health content to a global audience.

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