This exercise and app will help to address the biological aspects of heightened states of being.
Practices that focus on the body aim to affect how we in engage in life’s challenges. It’s not about magically making problems go away, but shifting how we presence ourselves to the challenge. We can view our body as the lense through which we are viewing the world, and so it makes sense to make sure our lenses are in good working condition (1). First, I’m going to explain why this exercise is useful. Then I’ll move on to explain the app, how to use it, and some tips to guide the practice. If you want to get straight to the instructions, scroll down to Apnea Trainer. There are footnotes at the end for more detail and references.
The Vagal Brake
Here’s a simple metaphor to explain a complex system that happens between our nervous system, our heart, and ho we regulate hormones. Imagine in your nervous system there’s a wheel and a brake. When you’re calm, the brake is on. When something happens in the world and you become alert to danger, the brake switches off and lets the wheel spin. The spinning wheel is you quickly energising into whatever response is required. Among lots of responses, our heart rate increases, our vision narrows, breathing becomes shallow and sharp. Perhaps there’s adrenaline and noradrenaline also being released to support what needs to happen in the world, in any number of ways we fight or flight.
Once the situation is over and we are safe, the brake clamps again, and calm is re-established in our bodies. How well this inner brake is functioning is called ‘Vagal Tone’. When people get stuck in a place of anxiety or fight/flight state, the challenge is that the brake is stuck off. To help calm down, the body needs to put the brake on again and stop the wheel from spinning (2).
Here's an example. The other day I was watching my dog lie in the sun. She was in a totally relaxed state, her heart rate was very slow. A cat came by the window and in a millisecond she was up, barking, tail wagging, heart pumping, pacing around, fully alert. Once she stopped barking, I can literally hear her heart beating. Within about 30 seconds the cat was gone and she was back to lying around in the sun as if nothing had happened! Her doggy equivalent of her Vagal Brake worked very well, as she moved between states very quickly.
If we could move between states like my dog, we wouldn’t get stuck in places of anxiety and heightened states any longer than is needed. By improving Vagal Tone, we improve the chances of moving in and out of states quickly and efficiently. No-one wants to be stuck in a heightened, alert state barking at a cat, that left two hours ago!
Here’s the main point: deep, long, and slow breathing has been shown to stimulate and improve your Vagal Brake System.
At the core of this exercise, we’re repeating a breathe cycle that is more elongated than your everyday non-conscious breathing. It goes like this: inhale slowly > hold your breathe > exhale slowly > hold with no air
The purpose of the app is external support to keep you on track with this particular way of breathing. Because you can stop thinking about the timing, it seems to create more of holding environment, where you can relax into something that's external to you. Here is the app for iOS and here is an Andriod version Once you’ve downloaded the app, congratulations, you’re about to go to the gym for your nervous system! (3)
Why is it called Apnea Trainer? Because it’s primarily designed for free divers who use it to slow their heart rate down and hold their breathe underwater for longer. Inducing the body into a calmer state means with less muscle tension, there's less oxygen consumption, so you can hold your breathe longer.
Interesting side note: this is not the only time free diving techniques have found their way into therapy. ‘The Diver’s Response Technique’ is a Dialectal Behaviour Therapy intervention that uses cold temperatures on your forehead as a near-instant way to calm down aggression and fight/flight states. Divers realised that cold on your forehead slows down heart rate and is calming. Therapist's harnessed this mechanism as a 'first aid' intervention when someone needs to modulate heightened states quickly. Feeling like you need to calm down right now? Stick a bag of frozen peas on your forehead for a minute and see what happens!
Setting up the App
Everyone's lung capacity is different. You’re going to need to set it up for your personal breathing capacity. On the iOS version go to Settings > Pranayama > [5s, 5s, 10s, 5s] to start with.
You are aiming to be comfortable, and relaxed, not straining, pushing, gasping, or trying hard hold your breathe.
If this feels too hard and it’s too difficult to complete cycles, scale it back to [4s, 4s, 8s, 4s].
If it’s too easy and you feel like you could go a lot longer, up it to [6s, 6s, 12s, 6s].
Set a timer within the app for how long you want the session to be. That way you can relax into the session knowing it will finish at the set time. Perhaps try 5 or 10 minutes to start with, and that feels good, then you can increase the time to 15/20 minutes each session.
Coaching points to help you along
• The aim is to fill and empty your lungs smoothly on each inhale and exhale. The challenge is to use the full amount of time for the inhale and exhale, and so timing the rate of your breathe so you don’t fill up your lungs too quickly, or exhale too slowly and not have chance to empty.
• It’s natural for it to feel difficult at the start of a session. As the session progresses, it gets easier because you’ll become more oxygenated.
• When people practice over time, often their base line will improve, and you’ll want to increase the timer because of a natural increase in ability to hold for longer, whilst staying calm. This is a sign that the practice is working. You are able to more quickly move your system into a state of calm, whereby you’re using less oxygen with muscle tension, and are able to hold breathes and regulate the flow of breathe more easily.
• As a regular practice, you will begin to notice good days and bad days. This is the foundation of bio-feedback. You are asking your body to do exactly the same thing everyday, and so when it responds differently, it gives you valuable information to inquire into. These sorts of questions might be useful Why is today harder? What did I do yesterday/this morning that has made today’s breathing easy? Is there anything going on in life right now that my body is responding to? Is there anything I can be doing differently?
• It’s possible to do the exercise at anytime of day and night. I believe you will get the most benefit from doing in the morning as you start your day. This exercise originates from an eastern Yogic tradition called Pranayama. Pranayama is generally the first of the daily practices for the yogi, before any asana sequences take place. I find it interesting how many of the modern mindfulness and symptom relief exercises like this one originate in some form from much older traditions. Pranayama was noted down in the Yoga Sutra’s, which is a text that is over 2000 year's old!
• Mind wandering is normal during this exercise. Notice what happens. Is it harder to keep the breathe regulated and to the timer when you’re thinking about something else? Is it easier when you stay present, listening to the timer, and concentrate on the rhythm and your body?
Thanks for reading, I hope you have found it useful! Any questions, feel free to email me.
(1) I've had this explained to me another way. Our mind is like an incredibly sharp knife. If you have a shaky hand, the knife is dangerous to wield. Training our body is like training the hand that holds the knife. With a steady hand, the knife can be gently held and handled to accomplish great things. With a steady body, the mind can be gently held and handled to accomplish great things.
(2) This metaphor was created by Deb Dana, in her book The PolyVagal Theory in Therapy
(3) I first heard about using this app to reduce anxiety in a Tim Ferris podcast, years ago. He was answering questions about tools, tips and apps he uses whilst travelling. I’ve attempted to go back through and find the podcast, so you can hear what he has to say, but alas, I can’t find it! You can find out more about him at tim.blog