Five minutes to better health and stress management

Move over meditation and mindfulness. A new health initiative is hitting the airwaves: breath work.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 3.4 million Australians — more than one in six of us — suffers from an anxiety disorder. This is likely to be an underestimate because not all people seek help, and of those who do, many still find that anxiety interferes with their work and quality of life.

However, there is now great news: a Stanford University study* has found that just 5 minutes of breathing exercises called cyclic sighing reduces anxiety and improves mood even more effectively than mindfulness meditation. Best of all, it can be done any time, anywhere, at no cost and with no negative side effects.

Research on yoga has shown that controlling our breath can make us feel calmer, less depressed and better able to manage stress. Controlled breathing also improves clarity of thinking, reaction time and problem solving. Following on from this, the Stanford study sought to ascertain which breathing patterns were best for improving mental health and how quickly we could expect to see benefits.   

One hundred and eleven participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups:

  1. Mindfulness meditation = passively observing one’s breath.
  2. Box breathing = inhaling for four slow counts, holding your breath for four counts, exhaling for four counts and holding your breath for another four counts.
  3. Cyclic sighing = slowly inhaling through your nose, then immediately taking a second sip of air to fill your lungs as much as possible. Then exhaling very slowly through your mouth.
  4. Cyclic hyperventilation = long inhalations followed by short exhalations.

Each group repeated their designated breathing exercise for five minutes every day for one month. At the end of this time, all four groups showed significant improvements in mood and reduction in anxiety. However, the greatest improvements were seen in those who practised cyclic sighing, followed by box breathing, then cyclic hyperventilation and in fourth place, mindfulness meditation.

Why does controlling our breathing — in particular cyclic sighing — have such a powerful positive effect on our brain and body?

Whenever we slow down our breathing — especially our out-breath — we activate a nerve called the vagus which counteracts our body’s stress response and increases positive emotions. Thus, instead of triggering the ‘fright, flight, fight’ system, we turn on the mechanisms of ‘rest and digest’. Regulating our breathing also gives us a sense of control over what is usually an unconscious, automatic activity: breathing. Since feeling a loss of control is a hallmark of stress and anxiety, gaining a sense of control immediately lessens stress and anxiety.

The people practising cyclic sighing also began to spontaneously breathe more slowly throughout the rest of the day. A slower respiratory rate improves heart and lung function, delivers more oxygen to our cells and increases alertness, focus and energy. The more days that people practised cyclic sighing, the more they benefited. This ongoing accumulation of benefit was not seen with the other three groups.

The take-home message is that starting each day with just 5 minutes of cyclic sighing — paying particular attention to making our exhalations as long and slow as possible — can notably reduce anxiety, improve mental and physical health and increase our resilience to stress. It’s a habit I’m adopting for the rest of my life.

*The Stanford University study was published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, and one of the researchers was renowned neurobiologist Andrew Huberman who visited Australia for a series of lectures this month.

Please share this HEB with anyone who wants to improve their health or lower their stress and anxiety.

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