"Just Breathe"

This stuff isn’t magic. It takes effort and time to train the body and mind and to build the skill to achieve coherence quickly and on demand, especially under stress.
— Gavin Andrews, Heart Math

Have you ever been in pain or stressed out at work when someone says, 'Just breathe through it"? When in the moment it is hard to think how breathing alone can make a difference to the way you feel but what if I said you could literally change your state using this basic human process. The process of breathing.

Your breath can be an effective and powerful tool to maintain or restore balance in the face of threat or stress, effectively promoting the activation of your parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. There are many different techniques that can be found with a quick Google search and most can be used to great effect. At Adeki we use a multitude of techniques but our most prolific are those that promote a sense of coherence or flow state.

Heart Math is an American-founded business that specialises in coherence breathing techniques and coupling them with HRV biofeedback, allowing you to see the effects of your effort in real time. Gavin Andrews, the Managing Director of Heart Math UK kindly offered to let us pick his brains for us on how he uses coherence techniques and HRV biofeedback to reduce stress, restore balance and promote resilience.

How does guided breathing/ HM techniques help you each day?

In simple terms it helps me ground and balance myself, helps me to clear my thinking and helps me to regulate my mood as I go about my day. The Heart Math breath practice includes emotion regulation and this can be hugely beneficial in reducing unnecessary and unhelpful (and unhealthy too!) experiences of depleting emotions like anxiety, worry, anger and frustration. I do at least one long session of 20 mins. This practice is what we call a Heart Lock-in and we “lock-in” heart based feelings such as care, appreciation or gratitude which practicing the coherent breathing. I'll also do a number of shorter, 1 to 2 minute Quick Coherence practices throughout the day as and when I notice any stress creeping in to my mind or body.

What is your favourite technique when short of time?

Sometimes I just enjoy taking a few coherent breaths while I look up at the sky. The sky can be pretty amazing, especially cloud formations but I think most of us ignore it or are oblivious to it. A few sky-focused coherent breaths give me a sense of awe, picks me up and connects me to the larger world around me and outside of my "head stuff". 30 seconds and I’m in a different place mentally, physically and emotionally.

Do you have a set time of day or a set length of time you practice daily?

I enjoy comparing like with like on the biofeedback and so I will always practice for 20 mins with the tech each day so that I can see trends in the HRV waveform, coherence levels, power spectrum and achievement scores. In terms of when, I like to use "dead time" and I will always practice when travelling. When driving, obviously I can't "go deep" or close my eyes, but I'll regulate my breath and focus lightly on generating pleasant emotions like appreciation or gratitude for people or things in my life. When I travel on the train my journey is usually just over 20 mins, so again it lends itself well to practice time. On the train I can close my eyes and go much deeper. As a result my scores on the biofeedback tend to be higher. Another time I often practice is in the evening when watching TV. My wife Sam and I like to watch dramas and box sets and I find that I can hit a really smooth and balanced breath while watching TV - even when the action really picks up. Though I have to admit my coherence levels were pretty low during the epic Game of Thrones White Walker battle! What I like about the Heart Math techniques is that they are “doing” techniques. You don’t need to allocate specific time like you do with some forms of meditation. Though they do of course have their benefits, particularly for deep relaxation, which is very important.

Implementing a protocol or daily practice In terms of implementing a daily practice or protocol I think three things are important.

Firstly you need to be motivated to give it a proper go. This stuff isn't magic. It takes effort and time to train the body and mind and to build the skill to achieve coherence quickly and on demand, especially under stress. You will get out what you put in. So give yourself time to form the habit – manage it for two months and you’ll be hooked for life!

Secondly, it does help to use the biofeedback technology. The numbers keep you honest. They show you the impact of your practice in real time. And over the longer term they begin to help you develop a deeper awareness of your state. Again that takes time and practice. Most people have very low levels of both interception (that is a bodily awareness) and also emotional awareness. The tech shows you what is going on in your autonomic nervous system and reveals the impact of things that you can do to yourself during your practice, like adjusting breath rate, depth, shifting emotional state, and things that your lifestyle is doing to you, like too much alcohol, processed foods, sugar, work stress and lack of sleep. Your coherence levels will reflect how your mind and body are doing and that enables you to make better decisions about lifestyle choices. Other HRV tech and apps do that but Heart Math is doing that in real time and specifically in terms of coherence, not just the amount of HRV or vagal tone.

Thirdly, if you want to make the biggest difference to your health and happiness then the practice should extend beyond the dedicated time you practice with the tech. I know people who do their 20 mins a day and can hit higher average coherence levels than I can. But they do not take the practice out beyond that 20 mins and into their daily life. Their daily life is still fraught with stress and they are still experiencing unnecessary depletion outside of their practice time. Sure, 20 mins a day will benefit you. But what make the real difference to your quality of life is practicing coherence throughout the day, that is, being conscious of your breath and regulating it when it becomes compromised and being conscious of your emotions and regulating them if necessary. It's this real-time modulation back to balance that has the greatest pay off. Ideally we want to get to the point where most of the time it's unconscious and running in the background. But as soon as we do get knocked out of balance physically, mentally and emotionally (and we will - that's normal) then we can consciously re-balance again sooner rather than later. Living day to day like that means that you are reducing so much unnecessary wear and tear, or allostasis, and you're helping your body regulate itself back into healthy balance.

If you aren't already convinced as to how you can use your raw materials to restore balance and improve your daily performance, get in touch and find out how you can implement a coherence strategy into your unique lifestyle with Adeki. Click here to send us a message.

Shifting to a state of coherence and appreciation activates the parasympathetic response, raises HRV and over time helps you become more adaptable in the face of threat, challenge or stress.

Shifting to a state of coherence and appreciation activates the parasympathetic response, raises HRV and over time helps you become more adaptable in the face of threat, challenge or stress.

Kieran Blay