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Sighs, those long exhalations of air often accompanied by a small moan, have long been seen as a sigh of melancholy, frustration, or even despair, prompting us to ask the person sighing, “What’s up?”
A recent study turns that notion on its head. Instead of viewing sighs as sadness or exasperation, acknowledge them for what they do: relieve stress, said Dr. David Spiegel, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Center for Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine.
“People think that deep breathing is the way to relieve stress,” he said. “But it turns out that breathing out slowly is a better way to calm down.”
A variety of ways to breathe.
You breathe without thinking, but what is the best way to inhale and exhale while thinking about it, especially if the goal is to improve health?
To find out, Spiegel and his team conducted a study, published earlier this year in Cell Reports Medicine, in which they compared three different types of deep breathing with mindful meditation. The goal was to see if a breathing technique could be as effective as meditation in reducing stress.
The researchers classified 114 people into four groups and asked them to practice mindfulness meditation or a breathing exercise (box breathing, cyclical hyperventilation, or cyclical sighing) for five minutes a day for 28 days.
Box breathing requires a person to inhale, hold, exhale, and pause evenly (like the sides of a box) to the count of four. In cyclical hyperventilation, a person inhales deeply and exhales rapidly: the inhalations are much longer than the exhalations.
In the cyclic breath, a person inhales through the nose until the lungs are half full, then pauses briefly. Then the lungs are completely filled with another breath, and then the breath is slowly exhaled through the mouth.
“You want the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation,” said Spiegel, who is also the medical director of the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine.
The team then assessed mood, anxiety levels and sleep behavior after each breathing or meditation session, as well as respiratory and heart rate variability.
Sleep was not affected, the study found. All forms of breathing and meditation increased positive mood and improved anxiety. However, breathing was more effective than meditation, with cyclical sighs making the biggest difference, the study found.
“Cyclic sighs are a pretty quick way to calm down,” Spiegel said. “Many people can do it about three times in a row and see immediate relief from anxious feelings and stress.”
Although interesting, the study was small and doesn’t detract from all the work in progress on the benefits of any form of breath work or meditation, said Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, stress management expert, former editor of Contentment Magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
“We know that bringing your attention to any form of breathwork starts the awareness process that fuels mindfulness and its benefits,” he said in an email. “As long as we are all experimenting with mind-body connections with an open mind and find something that calms us down, good!”
why does breathing work
Deliberately taking a slow, deep breath, holding it in, and then letting it out slowly activates the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for controlling how the body rests and digests, Spiegel said. The heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, digestion improves, and the mind begins to relax.
Compare that to a sharp intake of air, which you might take when you are afraid or in danger. That activates the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for preparing us to fight or flee.
“The brake works healthier than the accelerator here,” Spiegel said. “By slowing your heart down when you do this cyclical sigh, you’re immediately calming down pretty quickly.”
“We believe that the breath is a path to control of the mind and body,” he added. “It’s part of the autonomic system like digestion and heartbeat, but unlike those bodily functions, you can easily regulate your breathing.”
Other ways to breathe deeply
This is not the first study on the subject. Researchers have been busy testing different methods to see which calms the body the fastest, longest, or most deeply, and which provides the most health benefits.
Many breathing methods are borrowed from ancient practices of yoga, martial arts, and meditation. For example, the 4-7-8 method, in which you breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of eight, and exhale for a count of eight, is based on pranayama, an ancient form of breath regulation practiced in Hinduism and Buddhism.
There are all kinds of variations: the 4-4 method, where you breathe in and out for a count of four; the 6-6 method, in which you inhale and exhale for a count of six; alternate nostril breathing and many more.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing, has been practiced for millennia by practitioners of tai chi and yoga. It requires the breath to be inhaled so deeply that it fills the abdomen; You can tell if you’re doing it right by watching your stomach rise and fall.
A 2020 meta-analysis found that diaphragmatic breathing is especially beneficial for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and might be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety and treating constipation, eating disorders, high blood pressure, and migraines.
You don’t need to sigh or breathe hard to get the benefits of any form of breathing, Ackrill said.
“These don’t have to be audible sighs, you can just change the speed silently,” he said. “And you may also cause the people around you to slow down their breathing.”
So go ahead. Take a deep breath and let it out in one huge, long, slow breath. And if someone asks you what’s going on, you can smile and say, “Absolutely nothing! I’m just releasing my stress.”
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