Research and studies 

Breathing at your resonance frequency can help you with many physical and emotional issues, for example pain, stress, hypertension, anxiety, and depression. It can also help you be more centred and clear-headed, thus improving your problem-solving and cognitive skills. Lastly, it has also been shown to improve creativity and sports performance. 

Table of content

Caldwell, Y. T., & Steffen, P. R. (2018). Adding HRV biofeedback to psychotherapy increases heart rate variability and improves the treatment of major depressive disorder. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 131, 96–101.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a significant marker of health outcomes with decreased HRV predicting increased disease risk. HRV is decreased in major depressive disorder (MDD) but existing treatments for depression do not return heart rate variability to normal levels even with successful treatment of depression. Heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) increases heart rate variability but no studies to date have examined whether combining HRVB with psychotherapy improves outcome in MDD treatment. The present study used a randomized controlled design to compare the effects of HRVB combined with psychotherapy on MDD relative to a psychotherapy treatment as usual group and to a non-depressed control group. The HRVB + psychotherapy group showed a larger increase in HRV and a larger decrease in depressive symptoms relative to the other groups over a six-week period, whereas the psychotherapy group only did not improve HRV. Results support the supplementation of psychotherapy with HRVB in the treatment of MDD.

Erkkilä, J., Brabant, O., Hartmann, M., Mavrolampados, A., Ala-Ruona, E., Snape, N., Saarikallio, S. H., & Gold, C. (2021). Music therapy for depression enhanced with listening homework and slow paced breathing: A randomised controlled trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Introduction: There is evidence from earlier trials for the efficacy of music therapy in the treatment of depression among working-age people. Starting therapy sessions with relaxation and revisiting therapeutic themes outside therapy have been deemed promising for outcome enhancement. However, previous music therapy trials have not investigated this issue.

Objective: To investigate the efficacy of two enhancers, resonance frequency breathing (RFB) and listening homework (LH), when combined with an established music therapy model (trial registration number ISRCTN11618310).

Methods: In a 2 × 2 factorial randomised controlled trial, working-age individuals with depression were allocated into groups based on four conditions derived from either the presence or absence of two enhancers (RFB and LH). All received music therapy over 6 weeks. Outcomes were observed at 6 weeks and 6 months. The primary outcome was the Montgomery Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) score.

Results: There was a significant overall effect of treatment for the primary outcome favouring the breathing group (d = 0.50, 95% CI 0.07 to 0.93, p = 0.02). The effect was larger after adjustment for potential confounders (d = 0.62, 95% CI 0.16 to 1.08, p = 0.009). Treatment effects for secondary outcomes, including anxiety (anxiety scale of Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale) and quality of life (RAND-36), were also significant, favouring the breathing group. The homework enhancer did not reach significant treatment effects.

Conclusion: We found that the addition of RFB to a music therapy intervention resulted in enhanced therapeutic outcome for clients with depression.

Gerritsen, R. J. S., & Band, G. P. H. (2018). Breath of life: The respiratory vagal stimulation model of contemplative activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.

Contemplative practices, such as meditation and yoga, are increasingly popular among the general public and as topics of research. Beneficial effects associated with these practices have been found on physical health, mental health and cognitive performance. However, studies and theories that clarify the underlying mechanisms are lacking or scarce. This theoretical review aims to address and compensate this scarcity. We will show that various contemplative activities have in common that breathing is regulated or attentively guided. This respiratory discipline in turn could parsimoniously explain the physical and mental benefits of contemplative activities through changes in autonomic balance. We propose a neurophysiological model that explains how these specific respiration styles could operate, by phasically and tonically stimulating the vagal nerve: respiratory vagal nerve stimulation (rVNS). The vagal nerve, as a proponent of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), is the prime candidate in explaining the effects of contemplative practices on health, mental health and cognition. We will discuss implications and limitations of our model.

Gevirtz, R. (2013). The promise of heart rate variability biofeedback: Evidence-based applications. Biofeedback, 41(3), 110–120.

Heart rate variability biofeedback has enjoyed increased popularity in recent years. In this review, empirical evidence from multiple sources is presented from the point of view of possible mechanisms of effect. While more research is clearly needed, the data thus far are certainly promising.

Goessl, V. C., Curtiss, J. E., & Hofmann, S. G. (2017). The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback training on stress and anxiety: A meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 47(15), 2578–2586.

Some evidence suggests that heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback might be an effective way to treat anxiety and stress symptoms. To examine the effect of HRV biofeedback on symptoms of anxiety and stress, we conducted a meta-analysis of studies extracted from PubMed, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Library.

The search identified 24 studies totaling 484 participants who received HRV biofeedback training for stress and anxiety. We conducted a random-effects meta-analysis.

The pre-post within-group effect size (Hedges’ g) was 0.81. The between-groups analysis comparing biofeedback to a control condition yielded Hedges’ g = 0.83. Moderator analyses revealed that treatment efficacy was not moderated by study year, risk of study bias, percentage of females, number of sessions, or presence of an anxiety disorder.

HRV biofeedback training is associated with a large reduction in self-reported stress and anxiety. Although more well-controlled studies are needed, this intervention offers a promising approach for treating stress and anxiety with wearable devices.

Lehrer, P., & Gevirtz, R. (2014). Heart rate variability biofeedback: How and why does it work? Frontiers in Psychology, 5.</a

In recent years there has been substantial support for heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) as a treatment for a variety of disorders and for performance enhancement (Gevirtz, 2013). Since conditions as widely varied as asthma and depression seem to respond to this form of cardiorespiratory feedback training, the issue of possible mechanisms becomes more salient. The most supported possible mechanism is the strengthening of homeostasis in the baroreceptor (Vaschillo et al., 2002; Lehrer et al., 2003). Recently, the effect on the vagal afferent pathway to the frontal cortical areas has been proposed. In this article, we review these and other possible mechanisms that might explain the positive effects of HRVB.

Lehrer, P., Kaur, K., Sharma, A., Shah, K., Huseby, R., Bhavsar, J., & Zhang, Y. (2020). Heart rate variability biofeedback improves emotional and physical health and performance: A systematic review and meta analysis. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 45(3), 109–129. 

We performed a systematic and meta analytic review of heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) for various symptoms and human functioning. We analyzed all problems addressed by HRVB and all outcome measures in all studies, whether or not relevant to the studied population, among randomly controlled studies. Targets included various biological and psychological problems and issues with athletic, cognitive, and artistic performance. Our initial review yielded 1868 papers, from which 58 met inclusion criteria. A significant small to moderate effect size was found favoring HRVB, which does not differ from that of other effective treatments. With a small number of studies for each, HRVB has the largest effect sizes for anxiety, depression, anger and athletic/artistic performance and the smallest effect sizes on PTSD, sleep and quality of life. We found no significant differences for number of treatment sessions or weeks between pretest and post-test, whether the outcome measure was targeted to the population, or year of publication. Effect sizes are larger in comparison to inactive than active control conditions although significant for both. HRVB improves symptoms and functioning in many areas, both in the normal and pathological ranges. It appears useful as a complementary treatment. Further research is needed to confirm its efficacy for particular applications.

Shaffer, F., & Meehan, Z. M. (2020). A practical guide to resonance frequency assessment for heart rate variability biofeedback. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 14.

Heart rate variability (HRV) represents fluctuations in the time intervals between successive heartbeats, which are termed interbeat intervals. HRV is an emergent property of complex cardiac-brain interactions and non-linear autonomic nervous system (ANS) processes. A healthy heart is not a metronome because it exhibits complex non-linear oscillations characterized by mathematical chaos. HRV biofeedback displays both heart rate and frequently, respiration, to individuals who can then adjust their physiology to improve affective, cognitive, and cardiovascular functioning. The central premise of the HRV biofeedback resonance frequency model is that the adult cardiorespiratory system has a fixed resonance frequency. Stimulation at rates near the resonance frequency produces large-amplitude blood pressure oscillations that can increase baroreflex sensitivity over time. The authors explain the rationale for the resonance frequency model and provide detailed instructions on how to monitor and assess the resonance frequency. They caution that patterns of physiological change must be compared across several breathing rates to evaluate candidate resonance frequencies. They describe how to fine-tune the resonance frequency following an initial assessment. Furthermore, the authors critically assess the minimum epochs required to measure key HRV indices, resonance frequency test-retest reliability, and whether rhythmic skeletal muscle tension can replace slow paced breathing in resonance frequency assessment.

Steffen, P. R., Austin, T., DeBarros, A., & Brown, T. (2017). The impact of resonance frequency breathing on measures of heart rate variability, blood pressure, and mood. Frontiers in Public Health, 5.

Heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) significantly improves heart rate variability (HRV). Breathing at resonance frequency (RF, approximately 6 breaths/min) constitutes a key part of HRVB training and is hypothesized to be a pathway through which biofeedback improves HRV. No studies to date, however, have experimentally examined whether RF breathing impacts measures of HRV. The present study addressed this question by comparing three groups: the RF group breathed at their determined RF for 15 min; the RF + 1 group breathed at 1 breath/min higher than their determined RF for 15 min; and the third group sat quietly for 15 min. After this 15-min period, all groups participated in the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task (PASAT) for 8 min, and then sat quietly during a 10-min recovery period. HRV, blood pressure, and mood were measured throughout the experiment. Groups were not significantly different on any of the measures at baseline. After the breathing exercise, the RF group reported higher positive mood than the other two groups and a significantly higher LF/HF HRV ratio relative to the control group, a key goal in HRVB training (p &lt; 0.05). Additionally, the RF group showed lower systolic blood pressure during the PASAT and during the recovery period relative to the control group, with the RF + 1 group not being significantly different from either group (p &lt; 0.05). Overall, RF breathing appears to play an important role in the positive effect HRVB has on measures of HRV.

Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.

Background: The psycho-physiological changes in brain-body interaction observed in most of meditative and relaxing practices rely on voluntary slowing down of breath frequency. However, the identification of mechanisms linking breath control to its psychophysiological effects is still under debate. This systematic review is aimed at unveiling psychophysiological mechanisms underlying slow breathing techniques (<10 breaths/minute) and their effects on healthy subjects.

Methods: A systematic search of MEDLINE and SCOPUS databases, using keywords related to both breathing techniques and to their psychophysiological outcomes, focusing on cardio-respiratory and central nervous system, has been conducted. From a pool of 2,461 abstracts only 15 articles met eligibility criteria and were included in the review. The present systematic review follows the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines.

Results: The main effects of slow breathing techniques cover autonomic and central nervous systems activities as well as the psychological status. Slow breathing techniques promote autonomic changes increasing Heart Rate Variability and Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia paralleled by Central Nervous System (CNS) activity modifications. EEG studies show an increase in alpha and a decrease in theta power. Anatomically, the only available fMRI study highlights increased activity in cortical (e.g., prefrontal, motor, and parietal cortices) and subcortical (e.g., pons, thalamus, sub-parabrachial nucleus, periaqueductal gray, and hypothalamus) structures. Psychological/behavioral outputs related to the abovementioned changes are increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.

Conclusions: Slow breathing techniques act enhancing autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility in a scenario of mutual interactions: we found evidence of links between parasympathetic activity (increased HRV and LF power), CNS activities (increased EEG alpha power and decreased EEG theta power) related to emotional control and psychological well-being in healthy subjects. Our hypothesis considers two different mechanisms for explaining psychophysiological changes induced by voluntary control of slow breathing: one is related to a voluntary regulation of internal bodily states (enteroception), the other is associated to the role of mechanoceptors within the nasal vault in translating slow breathing in a modulation of olfactory bulb activity, which in turn tunes the activity of the entire cortical mantle.

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