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Struggle with Anxiety? Breathing is Best, New Studies Show

Breathwork led to more benefits than alternative treatments.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the USA, affecting 40 million adults. Now, during the pandemic, anxiety levels have increased: fear of going out, grocery shopping, taking care of your kids or managing work—anxiety when you watch the news or even walk past another person.

You may have tried yoga, meditation but still… you feel anxious. So what can you do? Two new randomized clinical trials out of Yale (by our group) and Harvard (by Michael Goldstein and colleagues) suggest that breathing may help most.

Anxiety is overwhelming. It disrupts everything that you do, from work to relationships. It's hard to focus, to think clearly, to make decisions, and to be creative—which brain-imaging research confirms. Your emotional intelligence also is impacted. In fact, anxiety makes you more self-focused, and you are not as good at connecting with others. It’s easier to lose your cool. Relationships with colleagues may suffer. Worse, so can relationships with loved ones. You may be impatient or snappish with your family. Sleep is disturbed, immunity is compromised and you’re exhausted.

That’s what happens when you are constantly in fight-or-flight mode.

When Mindfulness Doesn’t Work

So what can you do?

You’ve heard of mindfulness and it may or may not have worked for you. If you have high anxiety, you might find that sitting there, "observing your thoughts moment-to-moment in a non-judgmental way”—as your instructor or app taught you—is not only hard, it’s impossible. Research reviews show that the data on mindfulness is mixed. It works for some, but not for others.

A few years ago, our research team wanted to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress. Many had gone through regular courses of therapeutic or pharmacological treatment—nothing had worked.

So we tried a breathing protocol called SKY Breath Meditation (SKY stands for Sudarshan Kriya, also discussed in James Nestor’sbook on breathing, BREATH). In our study, using the SKY Breath Meditation, we were able to normalize the veterans’ anxiety in one week. Their anxiety levels were still normal one month and one year later, suggesting lasting improvement. Physiologically, we saw the same thing: We measured their startle response, a measure of anxiety.

SKY Breath Meditation is a comprehensive series of breathing exercises taught in online or in-person workshops (by non-profit Art of Living Foundation, or for college students by SKY Campus Happiness, and veterans by Project Welcome Home Troops. There’s even a middle and high school program called SKY Schools.)

New Yale/Harvard Studies on SKY Breath Meditation

We just published a new study at Yale evaluating the impact of three well-being programs on undergraduates whose stress levels tend to increase as the semester goes on: SKY Breath Meditation, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Emotional Intelligence—compared to a control group. The participants took part in the classes during the course of a college semester. Of all the programs, SKY Breath Meditation that had the most benefits—improving stress, depression, mental health, social connection, mindfulness and positive emotion. The Emotional Intelligence program improved one factor: mindfulness. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, to our surprise, showed no impact at all.

Similarly, a new study out of University of Arizona and Harvard shows that, when compared to a traditional cognitive approach, SKY Breath Meditation shows stronger results, improving stress, sleep, social connectedness, distress, anxiety, depression, conscientiousness, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Additionally, the Harvard study showed evidence of long-term benefit (in fact, there appeared to be stronger benefits 3 months later) and physiological benefits. Participants in the SKY Breath Meditation program showed less cardiac signs of stress before a stressful event.

Why Does Breathing Work?

Your breath is connected to your nervous system in many ways. By changing your breathing, you can calm yourself down in minutes. When you inhale, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and when you breathe out they decrease. Just by lengthening your exhales, you can start to tap into the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) nervous system—the opposite of fight-or-flight. You start to relax.

Research also shows that emotions are linked to breathing patterns and that you can change how you feel with your breath. If you feel anxious or angry, you’ll notice that your breath is fast and shallow. When you are relaxed, you’ll notice that you breathe slow and deep. Other examples are laughing and sobbing. The interesting part is that when you change the way you breathe, you can change your emotions. It’s a two-way street. By changing your breath, you can change how you feel.

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