Research from Stanford University shows that specific breathing exercises, as little as 5 minutes a day, improve and calm mood. Somehow it is clear to anyone who has tried breathing exercises that they relax, but in fact very little research has been done on this!
The research team around Melis Yilmaz Belban, with the collaboration of Andrew Huberman, among others, published the results of a pilot study in mid-January, in which around 108 test subjects performed various breathing exercises or a meditation technique for one month. The different effects on a psychological and physiological level were compared.
Participants were given video instructions on one of the four exercises (randomly selected) and then performed it at home every day if possible. In addition, they were given a wristband that measured heart rate, breathing rate, and heart rate variability. Body movement was used to estimate sleep. Each time before and after the exercise, they completed short psychological tests.
One of the four exercises was performed for 5 minutes while sitting or lying down:
- Mindfulness meditation: Focus first on the breath and then on the point between the eyes ("third eye"). Notice thoughts that arise, acknowledge them as normal, and return the focus to the point.
- Sigh: Completely fill the lungs with a double inhalation and then slowly exhale with a sigh. Empty the lungs completely.
- Box breathing: First, the period duration was determined with a simple CO² tolerance test (see below for instructions), the period duration is between 3 and 10 seconds. The individual periods are divided into inhale, hold, exhale and hold again and so on, each for the period duration (e.g. 4 seconds).
- Cyclic hyperventilation: Deep active inhalation followed by passive exhalation from the mouth. The breath should "fall out" of the mouth. This is repeated 30 times, then exhale completely and hold the empty lungs for 15s. This sequence is repeated 3 times, which gives about 5 minutes. This breathing is similar to the well-known breathing exercise of the Dutchman Wim Hof, better known as Iceman.
In general, the exercises were perceived by the participants as simple and positive. In both the mindfulness group and the breathing groups, anxiety and negative mood were reduced and positive mood (called affect in research) was increased. We can think of positive and negative affect as "glass is half full" or "glass is half empty" attitudes. Accordingly, a positive basic attitude can be strengthened with exercises of this kind. What exactly the results tell us, of course, we want to look at:
PsychologicalThe breathing groups showed even better increases in positive affect (glass is half full attitude) than the group with the mindfulness exercise. There was also an increasing effect the more days in a row were practiced.
So, as so often: Consistency is key!
Sighing in particular lightens the mood even more than the mindfulness exercises. And here too, with sighing, the effect increases the longer you keep at it.
Physiological: Breathing exercises can lower the frequency of breathing, and more so than mindfulness exercises. Again, sighing is shown to be the exercise with the strongest effect. The participants who were able to reduce their breathing frequency the most, also had the highest improvement in positive affect!
Interestingly, the researchers found no effect on heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV) or sleep. There was also no difference between the individual groups.
In fact, one possible effect could be in the stimulation of the vagus nerve. This is an important component of the parasympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for rest and relaxation. However, no change in heart rate variability was found and this is usually related to vagus nerve activity.
Alternatively, interoceptive processes are called. Interoception is the perception of the processes in one's own body. Early recognition of stress mechanisms can, on the one hand, increase stress through anticipation. On the other hand, interoception can be a window to perceive and intervene in stress signals. We become more sensitive and mindful. Perhaps some people create a better way of dealing with stressors in everyday life through this. The best strategy is still avoidance of excessive stress.
Sighing can also directly target brain structures related to tension and arousal, potentially promoting calmness. There is a reason why we intuitively sigh in certain situations. We can use this process consciously.
All in all, we probably only have an idea of how it actually comes to the effect that was measured. The research group plans to repeat this study with a larger number of participants. We will then be able to better distinguish between the individual breathing techniques and also detect small effects.
Take Away Message:
Breathing exercises and mindfulness exercises reduce breathing frequency, elevate mood and reduce anxiety. The breathing exercises, especially sighing, seem to have a stronger effect and there is a cumulative effect, the longer and more regularly we practice, the stronger the effect!
Of course, the other breathing techniques also make sense, the difference in effect was not huge either. At least in this work.
It is also clear that meditation and mindfulness exercises are more than useful.
With long practical experience, regular, purposeful meditation is definitely one of the most powerful tools. But for people of our background also the most difficult in everyday implementation.
Here are the instructions for the CO² tolerance test for box breathing (according to the study)
- take 4 relaxed breaths to normalize your breathing
- Inhale deeply to the maximum and then exhale as slowly as possible.
- Stop with a clock how long you can exhale slowly and relaxed
- Do not count the time after exhalation that you can hold with empty lungs, but only the pure exhalation duration
- 0-20 seconds= 3-4 seconds period duration
- 25-45 seconds= 5-6 seconds period duration
- over 50 seconds= 8-10 seconds period duration
ExampleIf it took you 30 seconds to exhale, try breathing with a 5 second period.
- Inhale for 5 seconds
- Hold 5 seconds
- Exhale for 5 seconds
- Hold 5 seconds
- New cycle
Tip: Box breathing should never feel strenuous, if it does, just reduce your period duration.
Enjoy relaxing and working on your health every day!
You can also find this post in the Rich Headroom Podcasts
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Balban, M.Y., Neri, E., Kogon, M.M., Weed, L., Nouriani, B., Jo, B., Holl, G., Zeitzer, J.M., Spiegel, D., Huberman, A.D., 2023. Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. CR Med 4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100895