Counting breaths is an effective meditation technique. It is especially useful when the mind is agitated, anxious, or stressed. Why? Counting is a cognitive function. As simple as counting is, the cognitive process involves number sense, one-to-one correspondence, sequencing, conservation of quantity and cardinality. In the brain, the prefrontal cortex (pfc), parietal lobes, and the anterior cingulate cortex (acc) are recruited. The pfc allows for top-down regulation and the acc mediates between the reasoning part of the brain and the emotional centers.
When we're upset, the sympathetic nervous system goes on alert. If overwhelmed, the limbic, or emotional center of the brain, predominates. When a threat is perceived as mild to moderate, however, the frontal lobes process the sense data to assess the danger and determine a logical response to it. Where there is a perceived and imminent threat, instinct commands and we default to the fight-flight-freeze response. It is automatic. Response time is quick. Example: you're hiking on a trail in the woods. As you round a bend, you see a snake coiled a few inches in front of you. Startled, you leap back. The snake, too, is subject to the same primitive instincts and slithers away into the shrubbery.
When stress makes you feel strong anger, aggression, or fear, the fight-or-flight response is activated. It often results in a sudden, illogical, and irrational overreactions we may later regret. Intuitively, we know this. What do teachers of small children tell a child who is about to implode? "Take a few deep breaths and count to ten."
By counting, we recruit the logical or thinking part of the brain and self-regulate the emotions. In meditation, we do not stop at ten but continue counting in cycles of 1 to 10, over and over for the duration of the practice. There are many variations: counting down from 10, counting up from 1, counting the inhalations only, counting the exhalations only, counting both inhalations and exhalations (especially helpful when the mind is difficult to restrain), or beginning the count in the pause just before the inhalation (my preferred method).
I use the Insight Timer app and set bell intervals. I have many presets based on the duration of the practice and the clarity of mind- which I assess prior to sitting. If the mind is restless, I will need 2 minute intervals. If the mind is calm and focused, I know I can hold my attention on the object of focus without interruption for 10 minutes or more.
Counting breaths provides interoceptive insight. I can determine breaths per minute. As the mind and body begin to calm, the breath often slows. I can measure my physiological and psychological state with this crude assessment tool.
Counting breaths requires presence, awareness, alertness. When an emotional storm comes, as they will, we have a handy technique to use to take good care of our emotions, our hearts, our minds, our relationships. This is not a technique we want to practice when we are in the throes of emotion anymore than we learn to swim after being tossed into the deep end of a pool. Find a quiet and calm space to practice. When the storms approach, and they will, you can find refuge within.