A recent study by Medicine Reports Unit suggests that a process known as “cyclical breathing” may be more effective at reducing stress than meditation, at least for some key benefits.
Breathing is an ancient practice that, to date, has not been extensively studied in a clinical setting. However, the researchers in the current study report that their investigation was inspired by people’s overwhelming need to manage pandemic-related stress. As the study authors explain, “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of simple, fast-acting, and cost-effective techniques to address widespread physical and mental health problems and access limited to health care”.
This remote, randomized, controlled study compared three different daily breathing exercises, each lasting five minutes, to an equivalent period of mindfulness meditation over a month. What they found: “Controlled breathing directly influences respiratory rate, which may cause more immediate physiological and psychological calming effects by increasing vagal tone during slow exhalation.”
A study in adolescent psychology explains what “vagal tone” is: “Vagal tone is a measure of cardiovascular function that facilitates adaptive responses to environmental challenges. »
The Cleveland Clinic blog explains that the vagal nerves (often called the vagus nerve, in the singular) “are the main nerves in your parasympathetic nervous system. This system controls specific bodily functions such as your digestion, heart rate, and immune system. These functions are involuntary, meaning you cannot consciously control them.
So, in summary, we could say that this study suggests that cyclic breathing, especially one that emphasizes a nice, slow exhale, can impact the vagus nerve in a way that calms respiratory rate ( i.e. breaths per minute). Respiratory rate is one of the primary measures of stress response.
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What does cyclic breathing do?
Selena Gerefino, MPH, MA, 500 HR ERYT, is a movement and meditation teacher as well as a scholar. Although she is a proponent of both cyclical breathing and meditation, she is concerned that people will see a study like this and think, “Now we don’t need to meditate anymore!” But Gerefino points out that cyclical breathing and meditation serve slightly different purposes.
Garefino says cyclical breathing is great for reducing short-term stress, like struggling with a co-worker, a bumper, or unauthorized charges on a credit card. But cyclical breathing doesn’t usually bring long-term changes to the brain the way meditation does. The consensus for managing stress is to do both.
What are the benefits of cyclic breathing?
“Meditation can increase anxiety in beginners or traumatized people,” Garefino notes. This may be one of the reasons the study researchers observed that cyclic breathing can be helpful in reducing breathing and anxiety, and improving mood and physiological arousal.
Research, such as a 2012 psychiatric study that used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), showed that meditation can increase gray matter density in five regions of the brain after about 30 minutes of meditation over eight weeks. (The Mayo Clinic explains that “gray matter” is healthy tissue that makes up an important part of the nervous system.)
Improvements in gray matter can lead to better memory, cognition, emotional regulation, and “mind wandering.” So while cyclical breathing quiets the mind in the moment, while meditation alters the brain to better physiologically handle stress over time, combining the two practices regularly in your routine can be an extremely helpful strategy for reducing stress. .
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How to practice cyclic breathing?
As a common entry point to cyclic breathing with roots in the yogic practice of pranayama, Garefino guides us through the process of box breathing, also known as “square breathing.”
- “Start by releasing all the air from your lungs,” she says.
- “Then inhale through your nose for a count of four,
- hold for a count of four,
- and exhale for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for another count of four
- and repeat three or four times.
The study researchers suggest that adding an audible sigh on exhalation helped maximize the benefits for participants. (It’s possible that the humming of the sigh centers the mind and creates a vocal vibration of the voice that further impacts the vagus nerve.) Remember that researchers suggest that only five minutes of this type of exercise breathing can have a major impact.
The key, according to many experts, is to make sure you practice this very regularly, like first thing in the morning or whenever you need to recover from a stressful time. “Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this practice,” says Garefino. “It’s impactful, and it just might change your life.”
A licensed respiratory therapist recently told us that this type of cyclic breathing technique can help you recover and even prevent respiratory infections such as COVID-19.