This 5-minute breathing technique can reduce anxiety and stress

That's what we all need in this challenging year.
Ayesha Gulzar
Close up of woman doing breathing exercise.
Close up of woman doing breathing exercise.


Anxiety levels have skyrocketed during the pandemic, leading to a shortage of mental health care providers and long wait times for therapy. However, according to a study from Stanford Medicine, there's an easy and effective way to lower stress levels from the comfort of one's own home.

A five-minute controlled breathing exercise, also known as cyclic sighing, can help reduce anxiety and stress levels. The instructions are simple: Breath in through your nose. When you've comfortably filled your lungs, take a second, deeper sip of air to expand your lungs as much as possible. Then, very slowly, exhale through your mouth until all the air is gone, as reported by Stanford Medicine.

Repeating these deep sighs for five minutes can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and slow down heart rate, which has an overall soothing effect on the body.

Breaking the anxiety spiral

Stress is a common problem in the workplace, with 80% of US workers reporting experiencing it at work. When we are stressed, our breathing rate increases and becomes shallow, causing some of the air sacs in our lungs to collapse and increasing CO2 levels in the blood. This can make us feel agitated and increase our anxiety levels.

To see the effects of cyclic sighing, a randomized, controlled trial was compared to two other breathing exercises, one emphasizing inhalation and another asking participants to breathe in and out for equal amounts of time.

The 111 healthy volunteers were asked to perform their assigned exercise for five minutes a day for one month. Results showed that while all three controlled breathing exercises decreased anxiety and negative mood, participants in the cyclic sighing group had the greatest daily improvement in positive feelings such as energy, joy, and peacefulness.

Reduce your stress level over the long term

"Most of the time, breathing is automatic, like digestion, heartbeat, and other bodily functions, but you can very easily take over and control your breath, which then affects your overall physiology and stress response," said Prof. MD David Spiegel, co-author of the study.

The effects of the exercise increased as the study continued, suggesting that a daily routine can lead to long-term stress reduction and an improvement in mood.

One of the best parts of cyclic sighing is that it can be done anytime, anywhere -- with zero cost and zero side effects. So, the next time you feel stressed, try taking a few deep breaths and experience the calming effects for yourself.

The study was published in Cell Reports Medicine.

Study abstract:

Controlled breathwork practices have emerged as potential tools for stress management and well-being. Here, we report a remote, randomized, controlled study (NCT05304000) of three different daily 5-min breathwork exercises compared with an equivalent period of mindfulness meditation over 1 month. The breathing conditions are (1) cyclic sighing, which emphasizes prolonged exhalations; (2) box breathing, which is equal duration of inhalations, breath retentions, and exhalations; and (3) cyclic hyperventilation with retention, with longer inhalations and shorter exhalations. The primary endpoints are improvement in mood and anxiety as well as reduced physiological arousal (respiratory rate, heart rate, and heart rate variability). Using a mixed-effects model, we show that breathwork, especially the exhale-focused cyclic sighing, produces greater improvement in mood (p < 0.05) and reduction in respiratory rate (p < 0.05) compared with mindfulness meditation. Daily 5-min cyclic sighing has promise as an effective stress management exercise.

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