UPDATE: This post is by far the most popular one on this site, and it has helped a lot of people. So, I have written an extended PDF version of this that you can download and save to your computer, tablet, or smartphone. You can also share it with others. It’s free.
Someone mentioned recently how their heart just races at times — “off the charts” is how they put it.
Many, many years ago, I actually learned how to slow my heart rate from pounding a mile a minute to a regular pace.
Back in high school, when I was working out for track, after a particularly hard workout, my heart would feel like it was beating out of my chest. It was pretty disconcerting. I actually felt ill when it was happening. So I had to do something. Here’s what I did:
First, I tried slowing down my breathing, but my heart would still race, and my body would feel like it was starving for air. So, I’d have to start breathing heavier again, and my heart rate would stay fast.
Then I tried taking in a deep breath and holding it… but for some reason, that just made it beat even harder. Yikes! I think that is because inhalation is linked with the sympathetic nervous system, which is all about adrenalin and fight-flight-freeze responses. Taking a deep breath seemed to activate the very thing I was trying to calm down.
Then I tried exhaling completely, and holding my breath for a count of 3-5, or as long as I could hold it…. then slowly inhaling, and then exhaling and holding it for as long as I could count. Somehow the exhalation is what worked for me. It may be because exhaling is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate.
I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say exactly for sure why this works, but I’ve come across other people talking about it — like the folks at Coherence and the new science of breath (the pic below is theirs, and if you’re into the science, I recommend you check ’em out).
But all the mysterious science aside, based on my experience, focusing on exhalation is what helps me slow down my heart rate. I actually have a little bit of a heart murmur (no big deal, according to my doctor), so that makes managing my heart rate even more important to me.
To recap, here’s what I do:
Exhale… hold the breath and count to 3 or 5 or as long as I can go… then slowly inhale and then exhale again, and repeat the count. If I keep doing that, I can slow my heart rate from pounding a mile a minute, to a regular thump-thump-thump. Sometimes I’ve done it in the space of a few minutes. It’s pretty cool when that happens! It feels a little strange and unexpected, but it’s also very reassuring.
I can’t guarantee it will work for everyone, and please don’t take chances with your health and safety if you have cardiac/respiratory issues, but I did want to share that. It just might help.