Whether it’s in response to a microaggression at work, first date jitters, or that double latte you just had, a racing heart can be so disconcerting, particularly when it feels like it’s practically reverberating in your chest. But even though your heart is an involuntary muscle that beats without your conscious effort, you do have some control over its speed. Due to the ways in which the respiratory and cardiovascular systems are connected, a simple slow-breathing exercise can lower your heart rate whenever it appears to be racing.
The main way that breathing exercises can lower your heart rate is by helping to counteract the process that raises it in the first place when you feel stressed. “Stress and anxiety can activate the sympathetic nervous system, causing the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and epinephrine,” says Heather Martin, DO, a family physician at the K Health telehealth platform who specializes in hypertension (also known as high blood pressure). “These chemicals trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is designed to prepare you to react to a dangerous situation, primarily by increasing your heart rate and breathing capacity and by dilating your eyes.”
As the sympathetic nervous system gets stronger, the quiet “rest and digest” processes, which are controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system, slow down. This makes the heart beat faster, which often feels like running, says Erich G. Anderer, MD, chief of neurosurgery at New York University Langone Hospital in Brooklyn. But when the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, he says, the heart beats only once every second.
That is why any breathing exercise to lower the heart rate will be aimed at activating the parasympathetic system (and No the sympathetic nervous system). And that usually happens with deep, slow breaths, says Dr. Martin. Breathing this way also forces him to focus on the exhalation part, which often falls by the wayside when he’s stressed and his heart is racing and he’s nearly hyperventilating.
That kind of shallow breathing can get your heart pumping faster because of the relationship between breathing and heart rate, says Dr. Anderer. “In healthy people, we see a momentary rise in heart rate with inhalation, which is then followed by a decline in heart rate with exhalation,” he says. Therefore, longer exhalations of slow breaths are also key to slowing down the heart.
And that’s just one way slower breaths can physiologically calm the heart. “Slow breathing may also have a direct effect on pressure receptors in the vascular and pulmonary systems and create a state of relaxation.” This state of relaxation tends to boost the parasympathetic response throughout the body and helps you to “rest and digest” after physical activity, he says. Dr Anderer.
A simple breathing exercise to lower your heart rate
Although there is no current evidence that any particular breathing exercise is best for lowering heart rate, Dr. Anderer points out that many breathing practices, largely originating in India and dating back centuries, are being ” researched and recommended to retarded patients by many in the medical community for conditions as varied as high blood pressure and depression.” One of the eight limbs of yoga is called pranayama. In particular, regulated deep breathing exercises, as well as the use of these techniques for relaxing and meditation, have their origins in pranayama.
An adaptation of this metered breathing is called “square breathing,” which can be used anywhere, anytime to help slow your heart rate, says Dr. Martin. Here he outlines the steps:
- Begin by exhaling completely.
- Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose while counting to four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Gently exhale through your mouth while counting to four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
The uniform repetition of inhaling for four, holding for four, exhaling for four, and then holding again for four is what gives this breathing practice its full name. You can repeat it as many times as you like, Dr. Martin says, allowing your heartbeat to return to its usual rate.
If this exercise doesn’t resonate with you, there are certainly others you can try as well. “There are techniques that include breathing for a certain amount of time or a predetermined number of breaths, exerting the same amount of effort during intake and expiration, breathing via just one nostril, and concentrating on one’s diaphragm,” says Dr. Anderer. And because everyone’s physiology is a little different, different breathing exercises can be equally effective for a racing heart in different people.
If none of the above seems to help, or if you feel lightheaded, dizzy, or short of breath as a result of a racing heart, be sure to seek medical attention “to make sure you’re getting the right amount of blood”. to vital organs, and that you don’t have an underlying irregular heart rhythm, which is something that may require treatment,” says Dr. Anderer.