5 minute breathing exercises could reduce anxiety more than mindfulness

Researchers from Stanford University have found that people who spent five minutes doing deep breathing exercises every day for a month saw their anxious feelings ease and mood improve more than those who only practiced mindfulness meditation.

108 participants were asked to practice one of three breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation for 5 minutes per day at home at a time that was suitable for them.

The first exercise, cyclic sighing, was undertaken by 30 people. This involves inhaling slowly, taking another shorter breath to fully inflate the lungs, and then breathing out for as long as possible.

The second exercise, box breathing, was undertaken by 21 participants. Box breathing involves inhaling, holding the breath, exhaling, and then holding the exhaled breath again.

The third exercise, cyclic hyperventilation, was undertaken by 33 people, and involves inhaling deeply and then taking shorter exhales 30 times before fully exhaling.

The final 24 participants were the control group who practiced mindfulness. They did not practice specific breath control, but observed their breathing to assist in focusing their awareness on the present.

After 28 days, participants were asked to complete two questionnaires to assess the impact of the exercises on their anxiety levels. These answers were compared against two questionnaires that were taken before the trial period.

Researchers reported that the effects were “notably higher” in the breathwork groups than the mindfulness group. Dr Melis Yilmaz Balban, one of the authors of the study, said: “Our understanding of the effects of breathing on the brain and body ought to allow specific science-supported breath practices to be designed in order to improve stress tolerance and sleep, enhance energy, focus, and creativity, and regulate emotional and cognitive states. Breathing practices that emphasize the exhale over the inhale portion of each breath are ‘more effective in reducing anxiety and improving well-being.”

Source: Nitesh Enduru, MPH; a graduate research assistant with UTHealth Houston School of Biomedical Informatics; and Eric Boerwinkle, PhD, dean of UTHealth School of Public Health. Other contributors were Adrienne Tin, PhD; Michael E. Griswold, PhD; and Thomas H. Mosley, PhD, from the University of Mississippi in Jackson, Mississippi; and Rebecca F. Gottesman, MD, PhD, from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). First author of the paper was Emy A. Thomas, formerly with UTHealth Houston.

Fornage and Boerwinkle are also members of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

The study was funded by the NINDS (including grants U19-NS120384 and UH3-NS100605), part of the National Institutes of Health.