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Breathing into bliss: How daily 5-minute cyclic sighing outperforms mindfulness meditation in improving mood and reducing anxiety

January 25th, 2023,

5 min read

Breathing into bliss: How daily 5-minute cyclic sighing outperforms mindfulness meditation in improving mood and reducing anxietyfeatured image

Breathwork is a significant factor in the mind-body connection. In fact, different patterns and depths of breathing have direct physiological effects on physical parameters such as your respiratory level, heart rate and blood pressure. For example, slow breathing at a rate around six breaths per minute comes with a lot of physical and psychological benefits compared to spontaneous respiration at 15 breaths per minute, like less stress, improved sleep and feeling more balanced. The same is true for nasal breathing compared to mouth breathing.

Research shows that both breathing and meditative practices can help people buffer and better manage stress. Yet, there are several ways in which controlled breathing exercises differ from the practice of mindfulness meditation. Controlled breathing directly influences respiratory rate, which can cause more immediate physiological and psychological calming effects by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Mindfulness meditation on the other hand, which involves passive observation of the breath, rather decreases sympathetic tone in the long run, since it is often not a primary purpose or an expected direct effect. Despite the mounting evidence in favor of the benefits of these practices, it is not well understood how different types of breathing impact mood and physiology. A recently published study in the renowned journal Cell investigates whether voluntarily controlled breathing exercises have differential effects on mood and physiology compared with mindfulness meditation. They expected breathwork to lead to more and quicker relaxation, both mentally and physically, and therefore make participants more compliant because they feel better during the intervention.

To test this, a group of Stanford-led researchers set up a remote, randomized, controlled study of three different daily 5-min breathwork exercises compared with an equivalent period of mindfulness meditation over 1 month. The three breathing exercises were: (1) cyclic sighing, which involves exhaling for a longer period of time; (2) box breathing, which involves inhaling, holding the breath, exhaling, and holding the breath again each for 4 counts; and (3) cyclic hyperventilation with retention, which involves longer inhalations and shorter exhalations. This exercise might seem counterintuitive since breathing associated with hyperventilation has been linked to chronic anxiety and even panic when it happens naturally. However, when done deliberately in a mindful and controlled way, it can actually be helpful and have therapeutic benefits.

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The researchers looked at how the different exercises affected the participants' mood, anxiety and physiological reactions (respiratory rate, heart rate, and heart rate variability). They found that all four groups (mindfulness meditation and three different breathing exercises) showed significant daily improvement in mood and a reduction in anxiety and negative feelings. However, there were significant differences between mindfulness meditation and breathwork in positive changes in regards to mood, with the breathwork group showing more improvement. The researchers also found that the breathwork group showed significant physiological changes over time, specifically a lower respiratory rate, which was associated with positive changes in regards to mood. Especially the exhale-focused cyclic sighing produces greater improvement in mood and reduction in respiratory rate compared with mindfulness meditation.

The study suggests that intentional control over breath with specific breathing patterns produces more benefits to mood than passive attention to one's breath, as in mindfulness meditation practice and that daily 5-min cyclic sighing has promise as an effective stress management exercise.

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