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Stress

5 Good Reasons to Try Breathwork

The surprisingly powerful healing modality that's right under your nose.

Key points

  • How you breathe can significantly improve your stress levels, your mental health, and your overall well-being
  • Breathwork tops mindfulness and emotional intelligence for mental health and well-being.
  • Breathwork builds stress resilience and improves posttraumatic stress.
Elijah HIett/Unsplash
Source: Elijah HIett/Unsplash

Everyone is born knowing how to breathe, but here's one thing most people don't know. Engaging in breath work on a regular basis can significantly improve your stress levels, your mental health, and your overall well-being. And it's right there, easily available, under your nose.

5 Major Benefits

My colleagues and I have run a number of studies looking at breathwork, and here are five major benefits we found:

1. Breathing is probably the fastest and most effective tool to feel better fast.

Ever noticed how hard it is to calm down, let alone think clearly, in times of high stress, anger, or fear? Here's why: The part of our brain responsible for rational thinking—the prefrontal cortex—is impaired in times of heightened stress and big emotion. That's why we have a hard time thinking logically.

You've heard people tell you to "take a deep breath" when you're upset, and that's probably been mildly annoying at best. But, wait: There's science behind this old saying.

When you're angry, a research study by Pierre Philippot and colleagues shows, you naturally breathe harder and faster. When you are calm and peaceful, you breathe more slowly and deeply. But here's the amazing thing: When you start breathing like the "calm" breath when you're stressed or angry, you can rapidly make yourself return to a feeling of calm. (I suggest one exercise you can do for this at the end of this post). Changing the rhythm of your breath to the "calm" breath can trigger relaxation in minutes by stimulating the vagus nerve and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (your body goes into "rest and digest" rather than "fight or flight"). From a psychological perspective, this finding is quite astonishing: You can change how you feel just by using your breathing—in minutes.

So my colleagues and I decided to study the effects of a longer breathing protocol—SKY Breath Meditation—on stress, anxiety, posttraumatic stress (trauma), and overall well-being. SKY Breath Meditation is a comprehensive 20-minute breathing protocol offered by international nonprofits: Project Welcome Home Troops (for veterans/military) and Art of Living (for the general community). Here's what we found in our studies on SKY Breath Meditation.

2. Breathing tops mindfulness and emotional intelligence for mental health and well-being.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three programs or to a control group (no intervention). We found that the participants who practiced SKY Breath Meditation experienced the greatest mental health, social connectedness, positive emotions, stress levels, depression, and mindfulness benefits.

3. Breathing builds stress resilience.

When placed in a stressful situation (e.g., "You have to go speak on stage"), those who practiced SKY (as opposed to a cognitive therapy), were more stress resilient. They exhibited less of a fight-or-flight response, a research study out of the University of Arizona and Harvard showed.

4. Breathing improves posttraumatic stress—even long-term.

Similarly, in a study with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who struggled with trauma, we found that not only did SKY Breath Meditation normalize their anxiety levels after just one week, but they also continued to experience the mental health benefits a full year later.

5. Breathing can be as effective for trauma as therapy.

A recent study we ran for veterans with posttraumatic stress showed that practicing SKY Breath Meditation improved posttraumatic stress to the same extent as cognitive processing therapy—the gold standard therapeutic treatment for trauma. Compared to cognitive processing therapy, SKY showed not only self-reported improvements in emotion regulation but also improved emotion regulation at the physiological level (heart rate variability)—similar to the University of Arizona/Harvard study above.

How to Start a Breathing Practice

Here's a simple exercise to try anytime you are stressed. When you breathe in, the heart rate increases and you feel energized; when you breathe out, your heart rate slows down and you relax. In this exercise, you will trigger relaxation by lengthening the exhales. Breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of eight. Breathe through your nose, ideally with your eyes closed and your hands open on your lap. Do this for five minutes. It can help a lot with momentary stress.

While this kind of exercise is helpful in the moment, what our research described above has found is that learning and practicing a longer breathing practice—the SKY Breath meditation protocol—can significantly reduce anxiety, depression, and trauma while increasing well-being. Just as you train your muscles at the gym for greater physical strength, you can think of a breathing protocol like SKY Breath Meditation as a way to train your nervous system for greater emotional strength overall.

Happy breathing!

References

The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä

Bayley PJ, Schulz-Heik RJ, Tang JS, et al. Randomised clinical non-inferiority trial of breathing-based meditation and cognitive processing therapy for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans. BMJ Open 2022;12:e056609. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2021-056609

Pierre Philippot, Gaëtane Chapelle & Sylvie Blairy (2002) Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion, Cognition and Emotion, 16:5, 605-627, DOI: 10.1080/02699930143000392

Michael R. Goldstein, Rivian K. Lewin & John J. B. Allen (2022) Improvements in well-being and cardiac metrics of stress following a yogic breathing workshop: Randomized controlled trial with active comparison, Journal of American College Health, 70:3, 918-928, DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2020.1781867

Seppälä EM, Nitschke JB, Tudorascu DL, Hayes A, Goldstein MR, Nguyen DT, Perlman D, Davidson RJ. Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military veterans: a randomized controlled longitudinal study. J Trauma Stress. 2014 Aug;27(4):397-405. doi: 10.1002/jts.21936. PMID: 25158633; PMCID: PMC4309518.

Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Oct 9;12:397. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397. PMID: 30356789; PMCID: PMC6189422.

Seppälä EM, Bradley C, Moeller J, Harouni L, Nandamudi D, Brackett MA. Promoting Mental Health and Psychological Thriving in University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Three Well-Being Interventions. Front Psychiatry. 2020 Jul 15;11:590. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00590. PMID: 32760296; PMCID: PMC7373803.

Bayley PJ, Schulz-Heik RJ, Tang JS, Mathersul DC, Avery T, Wong M, Zeitzer JM, Rosen CS, Burn AS, Hernandez B, Lazzeroni LC, Seppälä EM. Randomised clinical non-inferiority trial of breathing-based meditation and cognitive processing therapy for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans. BMJ Open. 2022 Aug 25;12(8):e056609. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2021-056609. PMID: 36008059; PMCID: PMC9422818.

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