CAMBRIDGE, Ma. – Not only are sigh-centric breathing exercises better at relieving stress and improving mood than meditation is, there are even certain sighing techniques that work better than others do, according to a study published earlier this year in the Cambridge-based journal Cell Reports Medicine.

The study analyzed 114 people, dividing them into four groups and requesting they respectively practice mindful meditation, box breathing, cyclic hyperventilation or cyclic sighing for five minutes a day over a month’s time. The researchers charted changes in mood, anxiety and physiological arousal — defined as respiratory and heart rate variability — finding that “daily 5-min cyclic sighing has promise as an effective stress management exercise.”

“While all four groups showed significant daily improvement in positive affect and reduction in state anxiety and negative affect, there were significant differences between mindfulness meditation and breathwork in positive affect,” the report’s “Discussion” section states, adding results from breathing exercises improved even further with practice over time. “...Overall, breathwork practices, particularly cyclic sighing, were more effective than mindful meditation in increasing positive affect, supporting our hypothesis that intentional control over breath with specific breathing patterns produces more benefit to mood than passive attention to one’s breath, as in mindfulness meditation practice.”

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According to the study, holding in a deep breath and slowly releasing it triggers the colloquially-known “rest and digest” response from the body’s parasympathetic nervous system.

The study described the following methodologies for mindful meditation, cyclic sighing, box breathing and cyclic hyperventilation:

  • Mindful meditation

    • Participants would sit down or lie down and set a timer for five minutes before closing their eyes and starting to breathe, focusing their mental attention on their forehead. Should their focus drift, they were instructed to re-center it by focusing on their breath first and forehead second.

  • Cyclic sighing

    • Participants would sit down or lie down and set a timer for five minutes before inhaling slowly and, when their lungs had expanded, inhaling once more to fill them to the max. Then, participants would slowly and fully exhale, repeating the pattern until the timer expired. It was ideal if both inhales were performed through the nose, the study found.

  • Box breathing

    • Participants would sit down or lie down after retrieving a timer with seconds that could be read. Referencing the timer, participants were told to note how long it took to fully exhale after four warm-up breaths — with each breath described as a full inhale and exhale — and a final deep breath. This period of time, what the study labels a participant’s “C02 discard time,” was then used as a measurement for a box visualization; participants would imagine tracing their gaze across the four sides of a box, with each side representing an alternating inhale or an exhale for the duration of the “C02 discard time.”

  • Cyclic hyperventilation with retention

    • Participants would sit down or lie down and set a five-minute timer, told to first make a deep breath that they let effortlessly “fall out from their mouth” before performing 30 more of the same breaths and exhaling everything, calmly waiting for 15 seconds with empty lungs. This was repeated for two more rounds, three in total.

Read further on Cell Reports Medicine.

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