Can breath control really help manage stress, positively affecting mental health? Verifying the scientific value of this increasingly popular practice was a team of researchers from the University of Sussex (UK) led by Guy William Fincham, who, as he narrated in PsyPost, having himself experienced its benefits at particularly wearisome times in his life, was motivated in part by personal interest in controlled breathing techniques. The results of the researchhave been published in Scientific Reports.
What breathing studies have been considered?
This is, the authors write, the first meta-analysis -that is, analysis of data already published in other scientific studies- that considers randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on this subject. But what are RCTs? We are talking about studies that consider the effect of a given parameter on a “mixed” (i.e., nonhomogeneous, randomly chosen) population and that also involve the presence of a so-called control group, i.e., one that does not receive the same treatment or is not subjected to the same protocol and that serves as a term of comparison in order to be able to measure the effects of the treatment itself. In this case, of all the studies in the literature concerning this area, the authors considered 12, with a total of 785 participants analyzed. The 12 studies were conducted between 2012 and 2021, and half of them involve the U.S. population. However, two were conducted in India, one in Israel, one in Turkey, one in Canada, and one, finally, was conducted online and aimed at participants of any nationality.
Why do breath exercises help?
As to why breath control has positive implications for our mental health there are several hypotheses. The effects of controlled breathing may have to do with the change in heart rate induced by breathing itself, with the endorphin release, or with the adjusting of the autonomic nervous system, which in turn plays an important role in the regulation of our internal organs and in particular of thedigestive system, whose connection to the well-being of our psyche seems increasingly evident.
The conclusion of this meta-analysis is that the controlled breathing exercises might actually have a positive impact on stress levels, although the authors urge caution and hope that theirs is only the first in a long series of analyses in this area, which seems at least promising for the promotion of well-being and mental health. As is always the case in science, however, these results will need to be confirmed by further studies.
What are the most effective breathing exercises?
There are many breathing techniques, many with ancient historical roots and drawing on Eastern disciplines: abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, half-lipped, resonant, etc. The studies included in the UK group’s meta-analysis include several of these practices, and the authors are unable to determine whether any are more effective than others. More specific analyses will therefore be needed to determine which of these techniques may be most useful. Until now, the authors say, science has not devoted much attention to the systematic study of this area of mental health research. Their study, they conclude, aims to lead the way and stimulate more scientific interest in this strand of research.