How do you meet the challenge of HSP self-regulation? Coherent breathing is an ideal tool to regulate your sensitive nervous system.
Self-regulation is a central challenge for highly sensitive people. In addition to our characteristic emotional intensity, our brains are genetically set to process information in a deeper way than those who are not highly sensitive. This can lead to nervous system overarousal and dysregulation.
Dysregulation feels awful. It is unpleasant in itself, and it can drastically affect our ability to function well. As a result, we learn to dread it. Unfortunately, the dread of dysregulation makes it worse. We need effective ways to stop this downward spiral.
Coherent breathing for HSP self-regulation
When I’m dysregulated, trying to talk or think myself into feeling better doesn’t work very well. I need a body-based intervention, something I can do that regulates my emotions now. That “something” is coherent breathing.
Why have I singled out coherent breathing from the many available breath practices? Here are three compelling reasons:
- Coherent breathing is evidence-based, simple, powerful, and safe for anyone.
- You can use it to re-regulate yourself on the spot—anywhere, anytime, without anyone else even knowing you are doing it.
- Coherent breathing, practiced daily, will restore a healthy balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of your nervous system, making you less reactive generally.
I learned this breath practice for my own use, and found it so powerful that I’ve since shared it with many clients, who report similar results. I’ve come to consider coherent breathing an essential practice for highly sensitive people needing support with emotional and nervous system self-regulation.
Where to learn coherent breathing skills
Ideally, you’d learn coherent breathing from a trained instructor who can watch you and help you make sure you are doing it properly. In order to be able to teach coherent breathing to clients, I completed the Breath Body Mind Level 1 teacher training. I recommend the organization without reservations (I receive no compensation in return.)
The Breath-Body-Mind organization offers several introductory workshops online each year. The course meets for four hours at a time, three days in a row. It is highly experiential and will emerge with a suite of practices to help you maintain optimal nervous system regulation through the day, with coherent breathing at the center.
You can also take advantage of inexpensive weekly practice classes (usually one hour long) taught by expert BBM instructors. In addition, BBM founders Dr. Richard Brown and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg and Brown have described the techniques, uses, and benefits of coherent breathing in an excellent book called The Healing Power of the Breath, which includes useful mp3 tracks to guide you in coherent breathing and other BBM practices.
However, in case you can’t attend a workshop or practice classes, or simply want to experiment right away with coherent breathing, here are the basics.
How to practice coherent breathing
To practice coherent breathing, download these tones to your cell phone for easy access. Try breathing with the five-breaths-per-minute tones. This is the basic coherent breathing rate, which creates an ideal balance between alertness and relaxed calm.
As you experiment, matching your inhalations and exhalations to the rising and falling tones, you may feel some minor discomfort or awkwardness. For example, it is very common to breathe in too quickly and have to wait for the next tone to come.
Overall, the practice should feel easy and relaxing. if you feel painfully strained or uncomfortable, something isn’t right. Consult a teacher. If your main challenge is pacing, stick with it: this will get more comfortable with practice.
If you chronically get out of breath, though, then five breaths per minute is probably too slow. That’s no problem: you can start at a faster rate per minute, and gradually slow down to five breaths per minute over a period of weeks, using a breathing app. There are many.
Here are instructions for the Breathing Zone app:
- Download the Breathing Zone app to your phone. It is available for both Android and iPhone.
- Click the rightmost of the three dots at the bottom of the screen to access settings.
- Choose your settings. I turn the voice off. For sound, I use Bansuri (the Flowing Water sound is nice too). I turn off the “Start Breathing Rate” feature.
- Start with ten breaths per minute and experiment with speeds until you find the slowest speed at which you can breathe completely comfortably.
- Practice coherent breathing daily at this speed for two weeks before bumping the speed down a notch. Always make sure you feel comfortable with the new slower speed before committing to it. There’s no hurry: you will get to five breaths per minute sooner or later, and in the meantime you will be benefiting from the breathing you are doing.
Frequently asked questions
Q: How often should I practice coherent breathing, and for how long?
A: Daily practice is best. You can start with five minutes at a time if needed, and build up. I went right to 20 minutes a day: it felt so good that I had no trouble with motivation. Any amount will help, but 20 consecutive minutes a day of coherent breathing will create significant changes in your nervous system over a period of months.
Q: Do I have to sit in a meditation position to do coherent breathing?
A: No. In fact, lying down will help you relax more. You can do the breathing in bed after you wake up. I often do it at lunch time in place of a nap, lying on the floor with my legs in partial inversion, which is particularly soothing to the nervous system. If you do this, keep a blanket nearby in case you get cold. Scoot your rear end up to the bed, and rest your calves on the bed.
Q: I don’t have time to lie down and practice coherent breathing for 20 minutes in the morning. Is it okay if I do it at night instead?
A: Doing coherent breathing at any time is better than not doing it at all. You can do your coherent breathing before bed if you like. The only problem you experience is that you will get so relaxed that you will fall asleep! In fact, this is a wonderful way to use coherent breathing in the evening: simply turn on your tones to a soft volume, lie down in bed and fall asleep to the tones. However, if you are able to find a way to do coherent breathing earlier in the day, that’s a good thing because it sets up your day. You can combine it with your sitting meditation, if that helps.
Q: Do I just plunge into coherent breathing? Or is there anything I need to do first?
A: It is helpful to both enter and exit coherent breathing in a gentle way. To enter, close your eyes and do a gentle body scan, beginning with your eyes and forehead, your mouth and jaw, neck, arms and hands, back, legs, and feet, relaxing and softening each part as you go. Then begin coherent breathing.
Q: What about coming out after the practice?
A: Coming out of coherent breathing gently is very important. If you leap up like a jack-in-the-box, you will lose much of the regulating benefit. Instead, when you’ve completed your coherent breathing practice, let your breath return to a normal rhythm. Do another gentle body scan, starting with your feet this time and moving up to the top of your head. Notice how your body feels, and notice the quality of your thoughts. Then slowly roll on your right side, and rest for a minute before sitting up.
Q: What if I experience hitches, or glitches, or have trouble staying with the tones?
A: It is very natural to have challenges at the beginning staying with the tones or with little hitches or glitches. However, you may want to work with an instructor who can help you figure out what is going on. Breath-Body-Mind mind instructors are carefully trained to offer this individual feedback, and they can do it over Zoom.
Q: Can coherent breathing hurt me in any way?
A: No. The practice is extremely safe and offers a startling number of benefits.
Q: What exactly are the benefits of coherent breathing?
A: There are so many benefits that I cannot possibly cover them all in this article. In The Healing Power of the Breath, Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg describe the many benefits of coherent breathing. It can lower your blood pressure, help heal severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD, improve heart rate variability, enhance athletic performance by increasing your oxygen exchange capacity, and help you regulate addictive urges.
For HSPs, however, a stand-out benefit is nervous system regulation, and a sense of self-empowerment around that. Your breath is portable, invisible, and universally accessible to you: you can do this practice anywhere at any time without anyone knowing, and calm yourself on the spot as needed.
With regular long-term practice, too, you can effectively reset the baseline of your nervous system to a healthier, more balanced state so that the changing conditions of daily life have a less dysregulating effect on you. The benefits can be particularly marked for HSPs who have suffered from any kind of trauma.
Q: Is there research backing all this up?
A: Yes. There is substantial research documenting the benefits of coherent breathing. Again I recommend The Healing Power of the Breath, which has an extensive bibliography. A highlight of the Breath-Body-Mind introductory workshops is a talk Dr Gerbarg gives about research and applications of coherent breathing. For example, she and Dr. Brown have been offering free workshops online for Ukrainian refugees and their children to help them deal with the intense stress of displacement during the current war with Russia.
Q: There are so many breath practices out there. Why do you recommend this one in particular?
A: Different breath practices can affect the body in wildly different ways. Some energize you and pump you up. Others have a sedating effect. Coherent breathing occupies a well-documented “sweet spot” between those extremes, creating an optimal level of both calm and alertness.
There’s a metaphor I often use to convey the power of coherent breathing. Imagine that the Lincoln Tunnel, through which millions of cars pass annually between Manhattan and New Jersey, is chronically over capacity. You are tasked with constructing a second tunnel under the Hudson River.
Doing inner work like therapy, Somatic Experiencing, Focusing, Internal Family Systems, Inner Bonding, coaching, and similar modalities is like digging from the Manhattan side of the river. You’ll get to the other side eventually. However, when you practice coherent breathing as well, it’s like having a second team digging from the New Jersey side. The healing process is deeper, faster, and more effective.
Coherent breathing can benefit you in the moment as needed. Even better, over time, it lowers your baseline level of overarousal. That’s why I teach it to all my clients, and why I do it every day. I think it is an essential practice for HSP self-regulation.