A recent study from 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, to date, has not been studied a great deal in a clinical setting. However, the researchers of the present study report their investigation was inspired by people’s overwhelming need to manage pandemic-related stress. As the study authors explain, “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of simple, fast-acting, and cost-effective techniques to address widespread physical and mental health challenges and limited access to health care.”
This remote, randomized, controlled study compared three different daily breathwork exercises, each lasting five minutes, to an equivalent period of mindfulness meditation over one month. What they found: “Controlled breathing directly influences respiratory rate, which can cause more immediate physiological and psychological calming effects by increasing vagal tone during slow expiration.”
One adolescent psychology study explains what “vagal tone” is: “Vagal tone is a measure of cardiovascular function that facilitates adaptive responses to environmental challenge.”
The Cleveland Clinic’s blog explains that the vagal nerves (which is often referred to as the vagus nerve, singularly), “are the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system. This system controls specific body functions such as your digestion, heart rate and immune system. These functions are involuntary, meaning you can’t consciously control them.”
So in sum, we might say this study suggests that cyclic breathing, especially that emphasizes a nice, slow exhale, can impact the vagal nerve in a way that calms the respiratory rate (that’s breaths per minute). Respiratory rate is one main measure 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’s a proponent of both cyclic breathwork and meditation, she worries that people will see a study like this and think, “Now we don’t need to meditate!” But Gerefino points out that cyclic breathing and meditation do slightly different things.
Garefino says cyclic breathing is great for reducing stress in the short term—struggling with a coworker, a fender bender, unauthorized charges on a credit card—but it typically doesn’t provide long-term changes to the brain in the same way that 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 people with trauma,” Garefino notes. This may be one reason the study’s researchers observed that cyclic breathing can be helpful for reducing respiration and anxiety, and improving mood and physiological arousal.
Research, such as a 2012 psychiatry study that used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has shown 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 a significant portion of the nervous system.)
Improvements in gray matter can lead to better memory, cognition, emotional regulation and “mind-wandering.” So if cyclic breathing calms the mind in the moment, while meditation changes the brain to physiologically manage stress better over time, combining both practices regularly in your routine can be an extremely worthwhile strategy to reduce stress.
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How can you practice cyclic breathing?
As a common entry point to cyclic breathing with roots in the yogic practice of pranayama, Garefino walks 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’s researchers suggest that adding an audible sigh to the exhale helped to maximize the benefit to participants. (It’s possible the humming from the sigh both centers the mind and creates a vocal vibration of the voice that further impacts the vagus nerve.) Remember, the researchers suggest just five minutes of this type of breathing exercise can deliver major impact.
The key, many experts say, is to make sure you practice this very regularly—such as first thing in the morning or anytime you need to reset from a stressful moment. “Don’t be fooled by how simple this practice is,” Garefino says. “It’s impactful, and it just might change your life.”
A licensed respiratory therapist recently told us this type of cyclic breathing technique can help you recover from, and even prevent, respiratory infections such as COVID-19.