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How To Stop Falling Asleep in Meditation - Experimenting With The Inhalation To Exhalation Ratio

This article is a follow-up to an earlier one in which I asked can you intentionally activate the sympathetic nervous system with breathing techniques?

In that article I reported the results of measuring my heart rate coherence in two conditions: a low versus high inhalation to exhalation ratio. I saw a clear difference - more coherence with a low ratio (longer exhalation). That was probably due to a shift in autonomic balance (i.e. between the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems) - but was it an activation of the sympathetic or a withdrawal of parasympathetic influence? Hard to say, given that HRV seems to be predominantly driven by the parasympathetic system.

So this week I did a further experiment. This time I measured skin conductance, which is related to galvanic skin response or GSR, while I breathed steadily at 5.6 breaths per minute (using my breath pacer), first ten minutes at a low inhalation to exhalation ratio, then ten minutes at high. I focused on my breath during the whole period, or tried to - i.e. it was a sort of mindfulness of breathing practice. I used the biofeedback device to measure, but not to give live feedback Here is the result.

GSR graph - inhalation to exhalation ratio experiment

What does the graph mean?

Skin conductance, measured in the fingers, is a measure of "emotional sweating" (sweat facilitates the flow of electricity and makes skin conductance go up). GSR is used in the well-known lie detector test, or polygraph. Rises are driven by bursts of sympathetic activation. What you tend to see is a series of peaks of fairly short duration - reflecting the nature of the SNS which is that you get short bursts, like putting your foot on the gas for a couple of seconds then taking it off.

The falling-off of the signal following a peak may reflect a slow evaporation of the sweat, more than a drawn-out withdrawal of sympathetic.

So, during the first ten minutes the signal heads steadily downwards on average, suggesting I'm relaxing, which is how I felt and what I'd expect given my breathing pattern. (In fact I was starting to drift towards sleep - I did this experiment at about 4.30pm which tends to be sleepy time for me). 

In the second half, with a high ratio, it's much more up than down. This does suggest the technique of breathing at a high inhalation to exhalation ratio does activate the sympathetic nervous system. I did feel more alert, though in fairness, following the breath pacer at that ratio was sufficiently unusual to require greater effort of concentration.

It's not a uniform rise over the ten minutes. I suspect in general it would only work for a few minutes at a time, which is probably all you'd want anyway.

Applications

You might think deliberately activating the sympathetic nervous system (which drives the stress response) is a bad idea - and for some people it probably is. But I believe it can also be adaptive, as long as you know how to recover and relax again afterwards.

Staying Awake in Meditation

As a meditator, the first application of this breathing technique I can think of, is to meditation. I'm a bit of a one for falling asleep during meditation sessions. I've tried resorting to the technique when I've found myself feeling sleepy, in order to stop myself falling to sleep. It's very early days but the signs are encouraging - I'll be using it some more.

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