There are many reasons why our heart rate gets higher. Maybe we had an unnerving discourse with someone, were getting ready on a first date, or drank too much coffee.
Other common reasons are stress and anxiety, as well as physical activity.
It is true that heart is an involuntary muscle, meaning it beats without our decision or effort. We cannot change the beating of the heart in the same radical way as we can change our breath pattern.
However, we do have some control over the speed of the heart.
The respiratory and cardiovascular systems are connected, and doing a breathing exercise to lower heart rate can work wonders in many cases.
I this article, we will cover:
- What causes high heart rate
- How breathing helps
- A powerful breathing exercise to lower heart rate
- 6 alternative breathing exercises to lower heart rate
Note that we are focused on the causes of heart palpitations which are normal and not dangerous in this article. If the palpitations are very frequent, happen without an obvious cause, or are accompanied by shallow breathing, chest pain, and dizziness, see your doctor (the exercises may still help on your way there).
What causes a high heart rate?
It is important to learn why your heart rate is high.
Some have a high heart rate due to heart and lung issues, and they need professional help and medicine.
For others, it can happen that their heart rate rises even with normal activities because they don’t exercise. In that case, it may be a good idea to start exercising and being more active. Just walking more can make a change for you if you don’t exercise at all.Heart rate can also get higher temporarily as a result of anxiety and panic attacks. Chronic stress also leads to higher heart rate.
How does breathing help?
Breathing helps lower heart rate. It counteracts the cause of the higher heart rate when you feel anxious or stressed.
This cause is that the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight response”, increases the heart rate when you are anxious. This is a natural mechanism that is designed to protect you from a dangerous situation.
However, the body doesn’t understand the difference – whether the stress is caused by a true threat. The sympathetic system will activate either way.
As the sympathetic activity increases, the parasympathetic activity decreases – the one responsible for the “rest and digest” processes. With this system decreased, the body has another reason to accelerate the heart rate.
This is where a breathing exercise to lower heart rate comes in. Specifically, we are talking about breathing which is designed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
There are multiple techniques we will discuss, but generally, we are talking about breaths that are slower and deeper than they usually are for most people.
This type of breathing exercise also encourages you to focus on exhaling longer than you’re inhaling.
That is especially important if you are almost hyperventilating due to stress, anxiety, and panic attacks (sometimes also due to strenuous activity), as the exhalation virtually doesn’t exist at those moments.
Shallow breathing in itself makes the heart beat faster – it goes both ways. Basically, just exhaling for longer and doing that for a couple of minutes may be the only breathing exercise to lower the heart rate you need.
Slower breathing boosts the parasympathetic system which calms the heart and the entire body.
That will also affect your state of mind, and reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety if they are what caused the higher heart rate in the first place.
The Impact On Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
HRV is short for heart rate variability, which refers to the time in between your heartbeats. It is higher when you inhale.
This range of beats is different for every person. Those who have a higher resting HRV have a more active parasympathetic nervous system, which means they usually have less anxiety.
We could create a whole article based around this topic, however, let’s just focus on the main topic of this article.
HRV is affected by many factors we can’t control, but also some that we can. These are sleep, nutrition, and activity.
Another thing that can improve your HRV score is breathing exercises, due to the connection of the HRV and the parasympathetic nervous system.
However, it won’t help if you only do some exercises now and then. You need to have continuous practice which will impact the way you breathe as a whole.
Basically, we are relearning how to breathe – learning to breathe deeper, and from the belly rather than the chest.
With time that can increase our HRV and with that our vitality and prevent future heart issues.
Breathing Exercise to Lower Heart Rate
The main breathing exercise to lower heart rate we are going to go over is Square Breathing which is also called box breathing.
This technique was popularized by Navy SEALs to learn to regulate stress, improve focus, and calm their nerves.
It is adapted from yogic breathing exercises or pranayamas, and it is easy to learn and remember for everyone.
Besides calming the mind, the technique lowers the heart rate.
Note that the military also taught a visualization with this exercise. Since each part of the exercise is equally long, they instructed the Navy SEALs to visualize a same-sided box which can be particularly helpful if you deal with racing thoughts.
So, how to do the exercise:
- Sit in a comfortable seated pose on the floor or in a chair.
- Exhale completely.
- Now inhale for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Exhale through the mouth for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Start with an inhale once again and continue until you feel better.
6 Alternatives for Breathing Exercise To Lower Heart Rate
The technique we described above isn’t the only breathing exercise to lower heart rate you can use.
There are other practices you can try. They will all be equally effective but it is normal to have preferences.
Due to differences in our physiologies and simply our approaches to these, these exercises can have a slightly different effect on different people or be easier or more difficult.
Note – If you feel any dizziness or shortness of breath while doing these exercises due to a racing heart, please consult a physician to make sure there is not a more serious underlying cause.
With that said, here are some alternative exercises you can try.
#1: Deep Breathing
One of the simplest breathing exercises you can do is deep breathing.
Simply taking deeper and more conscious breaths can help to slow a racing heart.
Focus on diaphragmatic breathing, which causes the belly to lift and fall down.
Inhale through the nose, and exhale through your nose or mouth. Try to make the exhale a bit longer than the inhale.
Work towards relaxing the body – you can do this exercise while lying down. Continue to perform it until you feel better.
#2: Valsalva Maneuver
Valsalva maneuver is another technique used to control heart rate. It can be especially helpful if you are experiencing serious palpitations.
To perform the maneuver, close the nose by pinching it with one hand.
With your mouth closed and nose pinched, try to force the air out of your nose.
When you’re done with the exercise, take a couple of exercises to calm down.
#3: Counting Breaths
A simple method you can turn to when you want to lower your heart rate is counting breaths.
The thing is a racing heart can make us feel more anxious, and thinking about that can worsen our state.
By counting our breaths, we will not only slow them down but also cease overthinking. It will shift our focus which will reduce our fear. That in turn also affects our physical state – and our heart rate.
Once you get to a steady rhythm you can try to make the exhalation twice as long as the exhalation. Start with 3 counts for the inhale and 6 counts for the exhale, then gradually make it longer.
#4: Humming breath
Another breathing technique that helps control the heart rate by stimulating the vagus nerve is the humming breath.
To begin, cover your eyes with your fingers and cover the ears with the thumbs to block outside sounds.
You will both breathe in and out through the nose.
With the exhale, make a deep humming sound with the mouth closed. Repeat this five to ten times then keep breathing deeply, but without the humming.
#5: Breathe through one nostril
This breathing exercise decreases stress and anxiety and also strengthens the heart. It’s a great thing to do when you already feel calmer or as an everyday exercise for the heart.
Breathing through the stomach cover one nostril and breathe through the left nostril for a minute or two. Then close the right nostril and breathe through the left for the same amount of time.
You could also do the alternate nostril breathwork technique. To learn how read our full guide here.
#6: 4-7-8 breathing
This is another modern breathing exercise to lower heart rate which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system.
It also trains the body to breathe deeper, making the body more oxygenated which has many benefits for your health.
How to do it?
- Empty your lungs entirely.
- Now, breathe in through your nose, and count to four.
- Hold your breath and count to seven.
- Exhale for a count of eight.
- Repeat for three to four times.
- If it’s difficult to reach the numbers, start with a lower count and move your way up. The main thing is to make the exhale twice as long as the inhale.
- Place the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth to open the airway.
- You can exhale through the mouth if it works better for you.
Here are some more breathing exercises you can try: