A recent study of Cell reports medicine suggests that a process known as “cyclic breathing” may be better at reducing stress than meditation — at least for some key benefits.
Breathwork is an ancient practice that has not been much studied in a clinical setting to date. However, the researchers of the current study report that their research was inspired by people’s overwhelming need to manage pandemic stress. As the study’s authors explain, “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of simple, fast-acting, and cost-effective techniques to address widespread physical and mental health problems and limited access to health care.”
This external, randomized, controlled trial compared three different daily breathing exercises, each lasting five minutes, with an equivalent one-month period of mindfulness meditation. What they found: “Controlled breathing directly affects respiratory rate, which may produce more immediate physiological and psychological calming effects by increasing vagal tone during slow expiration.”
A psychology study in adolescents 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 vagus nerve (often referred to as the vagus nerve in the singular) “are the major nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system. This system regulates specific body functions such as your digestion, heartbeat and immune system. These functions are involuntary, meaning you cannot consciously control them.”
So in summary, this study suggests that cyclic breathing, especially the emphasis on a nice, slow exhale, can influence the vagus nerve in a way that calms the rate of breathing (that’s breaths per minute). Respiratory rate is an important measure of stress response.
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What Does Cyclic Breathing Do?
Selena Gerefino, MPH, MA, 500 HR ERYT, is not only a movement and meditation teacher, but also a scholar. While she is an advocate of both cyclic breathwork and meditation, she worries that people will see a study like this and think, “Now we don’t have to meditate!” But Gerefino points out that cyclic breathing and meditation do slightly different things.
Garefino says cyclic breathing is great for short-term stress relief — wrestling with a co-worker, a fender bender, unauthorized credit card charges — but it doesn’t usually create long-term changes in the brain in the same way meditation does. The consensus to manage stress is to do both.
What are the benefits of cyclic breathing?
“Meditation can increase anxiety in beginners or those with trauma,” notes Garefino. This may be one reason why the study’s researchers noted that cyclic breathing may be helpful for reducing breathing and anxiety, as well as improving mood and physiological arousal.
Research, such as a 2012 psychiatric study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has shown that meditation can increase gray matter density in five brain regions after about 30 minutes of meditation for eight weeks. (The Mayo Clinic explains that “gray matter” is healthy tissue that makes up a significant portion of the nervous system.)
Improvements in gray matter can lead to better memory, cognition, emotional regulation, and “mind wandering.” So if cyclical breathing calms the mind in the moment, while meditation changes the brain to better manage stress physiologically over time, regularly combining both exercises in your routine can be a very valuable stress reduction strategy.
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How can you practice cyclic breathing?
Garefino is a common starting point for cyclic breathing with roots in the yoga practice of pranayama and 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 breathe in through your nose for a count of four,
- hold for a count of four,
- and exhale for four counts.
- Hold your breath for another count of four
- and repeat three or four times.”
The study’s researchers suggest that adding an audible gasp to the exhale helped maximize the benefit for participants. (It’s possible that humming the sigh both centers the mind and creates a vocal tremor of the voice that further affects the vagus nerve.) Remember, the researchers suggest that just five minutes of this type of breathing exercise can have a big impact.
The key, many experts say, is to make sure you practice this very regularly, such as first thing in the morning or whenever you feel like resetting after a stressful moment. “Don’t be fooled by how simple this practice is,” says Garefino. “It has an impact and it could change your life.”
A certified respiratory therapist recently told us that this type of cyclic breathing technique can help you recover from, and even prevent, respiratory infections like COVID-19.