Everything You Need to Know About HRV Biofeedback & Resonance Breathing for Self-Care
For many moons, my husband and I have been lucky to raise our long-distance blended family together. But because our family members are scattered across an ocean, our life can sometimes come with out-of-the-ordinary experiences: from frequent jet lag, to stress over the logistics of balancing two homes, to supporting the emotional connection among us all. Staying on top of our individual well-being has been a big focus for our family, and it has helped us thrive.
As a professional mental health provider, I knew early on how important it would be for us to have a set of go-to practices to keep our family feeling happy, healthy, and fulfilled. In my own research, I came across a form of physiological resilience training that Neil Degrasse Tyson referred to as ‘biohacking,’ and after one session, I was hooked.
I began proactively training my heart’s resilience to stress, and regulating my nervous system, with a trained practitioner using a specific form of breathwork combined with biofeedback from my heart. I brought this technique to my private practice shortly after experiencing the benefits of this form of training, and it has been a favorite technique among my clients ever since.
Since then, I’ve seen the technique referenced in publications from Frontiers in Medicine to GOOP’s blog. So here’s everything you need to know about the beloved regimen that is capturing the hearts of so many right now.
Heart Power: What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?
When we inhale, our heart beats naturally speed up, and when we exhale, our heart beats naturally slow down. This is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia, and it is a part of how our heart participates in our autonomic nervous system.
This inner dance results in a pattern of beats and spaces between beats, and forms what is known as your heart rate is your heart rate variability, or HRV.
A healthy heart will see a lot of variability throughout the day: it will speed up when we get a text from the person we love, or when we hit the gym; it will slow down when we take a relaxing moment to ourselves, or when we nap – and will reflect our body’s daily responses to everything in between.
On the other hand, if our nervous system is either too sympathetically inclined or parasympathetically inclined, the variation in heart patterns will be much less; for example, we may either be too jumpy all the time, or too complacent all the time, and not as responsive to life’s natural ups and downs.
So, when we reference our HRV as a metric, we can get a good sense of our nervous system function, and of the balance of our inner world. A higher HRV score (meaning, more variation) reflects a more regulated nervous system, and a lower HRV score reflects a less regulated nervous system.
Importantly, the effects of HRV on our well-being are bidirectional. This means that well-being leads to higher HRV – and higher HRV also leads to stronger well-being. When training our heart to be resilient in the face of daily stresses, or how to wind down and promote better sleep, boosting our HRV is a wonderful place to start the process.
For years, HRV has been a go-to wellness metric among many clinicians and professional athletes alike. More recently, public figures such as Dr. Joe Dispenza and Oprah have shed light on this metric in the realm of personal development, and HRV training as a wellness practice is quickly becoming a go-to for many who have heard of it.
What is Resonance Breathing?
Resonance breathing, or resonance frequency breathing, is a highly evidence-based breathwork technique that involves focuses on matching our breathing patterns to our baroreflex. This briefly syncs our heart patterns and breathing patterns, bringing their physiological functions into a state of physiological resonance.
Because of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (discussed above), a trained practitioner can facilitate a breathing pattern that influences our heart beats in such a way that our nervous system can become regulated.
And because we each have a unique baroreflex function, we each have our own individual breathing pattern, called our resonance frequency, that can bring our heart and breath into a state of resonance. So, training ourselves to learn how to discover our resonance frequency, and how to use it to achieve a balanced nervous system response, is incredibly valuable, because it allows us to take an individualized approach to nervous system regulation, and leads to dozens of research-supported benefits.
Years of peer-reviewed research studies indicate that this balanced period of time permitted by resonance breathing allows for a wave of benefits to wash over us, leading to short-term benefits (such as a state of calm, and minimized sensations of physical pain) within a few minutes, as well as long-term benefits (such as nervous system regulation) within a few sessions.
A practitioner trained in both resonance breathing and HRV biofeedback training can facilitate these sessions in about 20 minutes or less.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) biofeedback?
While resonance breathing is beneficial in its own right, it is all the more powerful when paired with biofeedback from our heart. It is therefore often practiced as part of a HRV biofeedback training regimen.
Heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback is a highly evidence-based, non-invasive technique that provides a person with real-time feedback on their HRV, allowing the person to gain greater control over their heart rate and stress levels. Like resonance breathing, HRV biofeedback can be conducted by a trained therapist, medical professional, or coach, or one oneself with some background training.
HRV biofeedback is usually performed with the aid of specialized equipment, though these days, plenty of at-home wearables can support HRV biofeedback (such as the Apple watch, Oura ring, and HeartMath devices, just to name a few!), and it is possible to even practice a variation of this technique with no equipment at all.
And the result is powerful: when we can get an actual glimpse of our nervous system function in real-time, and when we know to how participate in our nervous system function via resonance breathwork, we can suddenly become more of a participant in our own nervous system regulation.
Imagine it with this goofy example: when you take photos of yourself using a camera that faces you (for example, when you take a selfie), the camera provides you with a form of biofeedback about how your facial muscles create the facial expressions that you make.
With this information, if you don’t like what you see, you can make a few ‘tweaks’ to your facial expression quickly until you take a photo of yourself that you love – because you are able to see the expression as you go, and you can slowly learn what facial muscles to activate, what angle, and so forth that make you feel your best in a photo.
When someone takes a photo of you, on the other hand, you don’t have real time biofeedback of what your facial expression looks like, and you may end up with a photo you don’t love quite as much.
HRV biofeedback is a lot like that, except that it’s a reflection of your inner world. Imagine, then, the benefits you may experience by having real-time access to your nervous system function, along with a way to influence it through breathing exercises.
As one might expect, this regimen can be quite transformational and, according to the American Psychological Association, it is quickly becoming a highly popular and sought-after technique in the field.
Examples of Research-Backed Benefits of HRV Biofeedback and Resonance Breathing
In fact, research tells us that these benefits can be substantial and widely experienced. For example, clinical studies indicate that a person can learn to regulate their heart rate and stress levels with automaticity by becoming more aware of their physiological responses through HRV biofeedback.
It has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms, ease pain in fibromyalgia clinical trials, improve cognitive function, and improve physical performance and acuity.
HRV biofeedback has also been shown to improve sleep quality, lead to progressive muscle relaxation, treat certain medical conditions such as hypertension and asthma, and even improve athletic performance. (Cool side note: HRV biofeedback and resonance breathing are also commonly used techniques in the optimal performance training programs of astronauts, pilots, and Olympians).
Together, HRV biofeedback and resonance breathing represent a form of clinical breathwork that is widely regarded as safe, enjoyable, and effective across a wide variety of populations. If you want to try this type of training, it is recommended that you work with a trained practitioner who is familiar with this technique.
How I Use it in My Own Self-Care Practice to this Day
While this technique is the bread and butter of my private practice, I use it as a form of self-care on the daily.
I've tried this technique on myself both with and without technology, and both at-home and in a high-tech clinical facility, and I can appreciate the nuances of each setting.
But in my day to day, my favorite use is this: when I experience unserving feelings discomfort, fear, or overwhelm about something, I breathe at my personal resonance frequency (5 breaths per minute) while in the presence of (or while visualizing) the source of discomfort, which help neutralize these responses in my nervous system. For example - if heavy traffic on the way to school is bringing me down, I start participating in my nervous system responses, and will breathe in resonance each time I sit in traffic. Very quickly, my nervous system becomes conditioned to not sweat it as much. And I track my HRV using my Oura ring (which I wear daily!) to ensure an upward trend overall.
Another example: when I am feeling like I want to achieve something, but that thing feels really big or distant or just out of the realm of possibility for me - I put myself in situations where I can normalize the goal within my nervous system, and suddenly my body no longer tries to tie me down within an unserving comfort zone. For example, I may resonance breathe and track my HRV while watching a day-in-the-life video of a person who has achieved something in life that I aim to achieve, too. Soon enough, the goal doesn't feel so far away at all, and I can get to work on it.
For me, it's self-care at its finest.
A therapist, medical professional, or coach with HRV biofeedback and clinical breathwork training can assist you in developing a personalized program, as well as provide guidance and support as you learn to use HRV biofeedback to improve your overall well-being.
Interested in becoming a client of our private practice? You can join the waitlist by reaching out to us on the contact form here.
Interested in becoming a certified practitioner with our accredited training program? You can join the waitlist here.
To health, happiness, and a life well-lived – Aubry
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