Heart rate coherence exercises

Here's my suggestion for your New Year's resolution for all of you.   Who has heard of heart rate coherence?

The concept was introduced to me by a psychologist in the fall of 2018 when I sought help for anxiety attacks and phobia.  That's my weak point when stress and worries rise...then I add a nice little layer of anxiety to it. 

Anyway, I got the instruction to start doing heart rate coherence exercises 3 times a day, always, to become a habit like brushing my teeth.  The challenge would be to keep up the rhythm once I felt better as it's easy to be motivated to act when you are not doing well, so he predicted. He was right: there is not a single day in the last half year that I've done my exercise 3 times a day.  But I'm trying once a day...some weeks I succeed, some days I do it twice a day, some days I forget (despite a reminder popping up on my phone 3 times a day).

So what is heart rate coherence?

We do not have a stable heart rate.  Our heart beats x times per minute but continuously accelerates or slows down.  This is linked to our nervous system and hormones and interacts with our breathing.  Our heartbeats and breathing is linked with our psychological well being. Our heart rate variability shows an irregular pattern but a high irregularity with low variability is correlated with health issues (cardio issues, diabetes (with predictive values!), ...) , stress but also higher age.  Our parasympathic and sympathic nerve systems regulate our blood pressure and heart rate.  It's also our parasympathic nerve system that resets our stress levels and reduces the cortisol level back in our body. In other words: our heart rate responds to our emotions.

So our heart rate is variable and increases and decreases constantly.  It tends to increase when we inhale and decrease when we exhale. We reach a heart rate coherence when the acceleration and deceleration of our heart rate is well aligned with our breathing patterns.  At that moment our heart rate variability shows a nice sinus curve with a high variablity (big ups and downs) yet a regular curve.  At that moment the resonance of our heart beats are coherent with the resonance sounds of our breathing. 

Why should we strive for heart rate coherence? 

I don't know all scientific studies so I do not dare to make a lot of claims here.  But even though heart rate coherence has been studied since the 70ies, it seems to be a hot study topic. My psychologist logged on to a scientific paper network and typed in the search term to show me the explosion of papers and research studies getting published on the topic all the time.   Cardiologists, psychologists, sociologists, ... all are interested in the effects of heart rate coherence.

What seems to be proven and clear is that heart rate coherence builds our resilience and reduces stress levels.  Or for some our heart rate variability and heart rate coherence is an indicator of our stress levels. Or as my therapist said "doing a heart rate coherence exercises, resets your nerve system".  There's also claims that in long-term helps our social skills and empathy and bonding in society  and it would reduce our chances for dementia?
Well to be honest I did not find those studies by googling a bit but I found studies to find differences in HRV in novices or experienced parachute jumpers before the jump or during the women's hormonal cycle etc...so cleary, it's getting studied in all its aspects.

So how do I exercise for heart rate coherence? 

It's actually quite simple.  You need to excercise a concious and slow breathing pattern of 10-12 seconds: 5 sec in - (1 or 2 hold) and 5-6 seconds out.  Do this for about 5 minutes.

The Fitbit "relax" option with the breathing circles that train you to breath in and breath out have this pattern.

Personally I use the Heart Rate Pro app on my iphone (paying for just a few euro's).  With my index finger on the flash light, it will measure my heart rate pattern. Without paying attention to my breathing it will be quite irregular.  Then I try to breath following the yellow ball on the bottom of the screen to breath....up is inhale,  down is exhale. 

On the middle screen you will see a curve that shows the level of coherence at that moment (and a average score during the exercise as your coherence needs to start go up during the exercise but some loss of concentration can also have a drop in coherence again). You can also have a second screen that shows the heart rate which should start to show a nice sinus curve aligned with the breathing curve below. 

My striving for effect is doing the excercise during 5 minutes minimum and achieve a 80% average coherence during that.

But without all the apps and technology, you can tap a finger on your knee and try to count 5-6 seconds each time and adapt your breathing to this rhythm.  Like this you can even try to do it in a meeting or during your work commute or ...

So what is my personal experience? 

I like to do it as it surely is a little moment of "being in the moment" mindfulness. Just for this simple fact, it is a nice meditation exercise. Just focus on slow conscious breathing for 5 minutes. It helps to apply more belly breathing.

I tend to do it before bedtime when I'm already a bit sleepy and then it's so easy for me to reach coherence. Scores above 90% are often the rule.  And yet some days, not at all for no apparent reason. Some days my heart rate just continues in its irregularity despite my disciplined breathing.
I do notice also that drifting off in thoughts , that just one thought causes sudden peaks or dips in the heart rate right away that you need to "recover" from again.  One upsetting thought...and your heart rate coherence is gone.

Now that I've been doing it a lot, I find it harder to use it as a mindfulness moment. I seem to start breathing automatically while my mind just continues racing around in the day's events and yet my HRV is fine. Maybe it's just a fact that I'm less stressed that a year ago but it's my working point to not only do the exercise more frequently but to also try to clear my mind during the exercise.

I do strongly believe in the value and importance of heart rate coherence and I find it such an easy exercise to apply in one's live that I believe we should all try to do it on a daily basis.


Leen said…
Ik doe het minstens één keer per dag, al zou het inderdaad beter drie keer zijn, maar ik ben dus al blij als het één keer lukt. Ik leerde het van de kinesiste die me hielp met relaxatietherapie, want door mijn buik ademhalen of überhaupt gezond ademhalen kon ik toen niet. Als ik echt stress heb en last heb van hyperventilatie, doe ik het meerdere keren per dag omdat het mijn middenrif wat kan ontspannen. Ik heb de oefening anders aangeleerd gekregen: altijd korter inademen dan uitademen, en dat dan 4 tellen in, en 6 tellen uit (eventueel 1 tel vasthouden tussenin). Ik neem het op in mijn ochtendlijke meditatie en doe het ook (als ik eraan denk) vlak voor ik ga slapen.
Goofball said…
Ik kom ook aan maximum 1 keer per dag hoor (tenzij ik voel dat ik opeens een stressaanval heb). 'k Wil vooral de routine van frequent doen aanhouden.

Popular Posts