A new report published in Cell Reports Medicine has found that individuals who use assigned breathwork techniques experienced greater improvements in mood and lowered respiratory rates as compared to those practicing mindfulness meditation. These findings indicate that breathwork may be an important therapeutic tool for those experiencing depressed mood or an overactive nervous system.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, breathwork has become a popular and cost-effective intervention for improving health and well-being through intentional breathing techniques. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated how we breathe affects our heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and ventilation. In addition, initial research has provided evidence that techniques like slow and nasal breathing can enhance the quality of life for asthma patients, reduce anxiety, and improve alertness and learning abilities in people.
Interestingly, research has found breathwork and mindfulness meditation have distinct differences. Unlike mindfulness meditation, breathwork involves intentionally altering the body’s physiological state through controlled breathing techniques. Mindfulness meditation focuses on observing one’s breath without actively trying to change it, with the goal of increasing present moment awareness.
Although increasing evidence supports the advantages of breathwork for overall health and well-being, further studies are required to comprehend the relative impacts of different breathing techniques and the number of breathing exercises necessary to achieve these outcomes. Therefore, the authors behind the current study sought to compare mindfulness meditation’s psychological and physiological effects to three different breathing exercises.
“I have a career-long research and clinical program in hypnosis and am very interested in mind-body interventions that are both rapid and effective,” said study author David Spiegel, the Willson Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Director the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine.
“We have developed a digital interactive self-hypnosis app, Reveri, that helps people learn how to manage stress, pain, insomnia and other problems. We thought that breathwork could provide similar rapid and effective control of both psychological and physiological aspects of stress.”
The research team recruited 108 participants who were divided into different technique conditions: meditation, cyclic sighing, box breathing, or cyclic hyperventilation. During the one-month study, participants practiced their assigned technique for five minutes daily. At the study’s beginning and conclusion, the researchers collected information on trait anxiety and sleep disturbance. Participants filled out daily anxiety, affect, heart, and respiration rate, and sleep quality measures.
The findings revealed that all four groups experienced significant improvements in positive affect along with reductions in state anxiety and negative affect. However, there were notable differences between mindfulness meditation and breathwork in positive affect, with the cyclic sighing group showing the most increase and the mindfulness meditation group showing the least. Additionally, the breathwork group had significant physiological changes, such as a lower respiratory rate compared to the mindfulness meditation group.
Based on the data, it was found that cyclic sighing, which involves a prolonged exhale and a double inhale, produces significant benefits for both mood and physiology. The effects of various breathing techniques on heart function have been established, and studies suggest that heart rate variability reflects vagal function.
The new study suggests that breathwork may be more effective in inducing mental and physical relaxation due to its direct influence on the body’s physiological state through controlled breathing.
“Just five minutes a day of cyclic sighing over a month can improve mood and reduce unnecessary physical arousal,” Spiegel told PsyPost.
Although there were no significant variations in heart rate variability across different breathing conditions, deliberate breathing practices are believed to affect brain function through vagus nerve pathways. Additionally, breathing can improve interoceptive processes, which involve sensing and interpreting visceral stimuli through the brain-body axis.
COVID-19 restrictions limited the study; data was collected remotely, so it is difficult to know if participants were following through on the daily practices. In addition, the sample size was fairly small.
The outcomes of this research indicate that intentional breathwork techniques can have a diverse impact on physiology and mood compared to mindfulness meditation by managing the vagal function and enhancing interoceptive processes.
“We are interested in how similar this is to self-hypnosis,” Spiegel added. “We have neuroimaging data showing brain changes in hypnosis that may apply to breathwork as well.”
The study, “Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal”, was authored by Melis Yilmaz Balban, Eric Neri, Manuela M. Kogon, Lara Weed, Bita Nouriani, Booil Jo, Gary Holl, Jamie M. Zeitzer, David Spiegel and Andrew D. Huberman.