Everyone breathes. Most of the time we do it without even thinking about it. But those who consciously focus on each inhalation and exhalation could reap some impressive health benefits, especially for those that struggle with meditation.
A new randomized controlled study among 108 participants found that over the course of a month, five minutes of daily breath techniques provided similar benefits to mood and anxiety as five minutes of daily mindfulness meditation.
In fact, in some respects, participants designated to the breathing technique group were even better off.
Conducted by researchers from Stanford University in California, the study suggests breathing exercises may be a more "potent and acute" mental health tool than meditation, which can itself rival antidepressants in its treatment of anxiety.
"If you're looking to improve sleep and reduce daytime stress, recover from intense work, life and/or training, then interventions that facilitate autonomic control (and indeed you can control it), brief (5 minutes) structured breathwork is among the more powerful (and zero cost) tools," neuroscientist and co-author Andrew Huberman wrote on Twitter.
Each day of the current experiment, participants reported on their mood and vital signs including heart rate, breathing rate, and sleep. Those who spent five minutes working on their breath each day showed the most stress relief at the end of the month, with day-on-day improvements in their mental and physiological health.
What's more, the current study tested three different breathing techniques, and one of them seemed to perform the best.
Participants who were asked to practice cyclic sighing – when exhalations are pronounced and prolonged – showed greater improvements than those who were asked to practice box breathing – when inhalation, a pause, and exhalation all match in duration – or cyclic hyperventilation – when inhalations are longer and exhalations are shorter.
To be clear, each of the breathing techniques and the mindfulness techniques in this study showed benefits. However the breathing technique groups reported a higher increase in positive affect than the mindfulness meditation group.
There's something about controlled breathing that seems to set it apart, at least according to this one experiment.
Previous breath studies have shown that inhalations generally increase heart rate while exhalations decrease it. Perhaps that's why cyclical sighing is so effective. It might calm the body and mind by placing emphasis on breathing out.
Box breathing, on the other hand, is often used by military personnel to remain calm under stressful situations. And controlled hyperventilation is sometimes used to help alleviate anxiety or panic.
Meditation's positive effects tend to take longer to show up.
"There are several ways in which voluntary controlled breathing exercises differ from the practice of mindfulness meditation," the researchers write.
"Controlled breathing directly influences respiratory rate, which can cause more immediate physiological and psychological calming effects by increasing vagal tone during slow expiration. While mindfulness meditation might decrease sympathetic tone in the long run, that is not its primary purpose or an expected acute effect."
More research is needed to tease apart the differences between controlled breathing and passive meditation, but there's something about an intentional mindset that seems to hold more immediate health benefits.
As humans, we never fully have control over our bodies, and sometimes that can be a really scary reality. Exerting a moment of control, even simply to sigh, could be just what the doctor ordered.
The study was published in Cell Reports Medicine.