If you've ever let out a big old sigh during a frustrating or exasperating situation, there's now science behind why you might have felt even slightly better. New research out of Stanford shows that just five minutes a day of breathing that way can be an effective stress reliever, and might work even better than meditation. In the study published earlier this year in the Cell Reports Medicine journal, researchers broke 114 subjects into four groups, each of which practiced a different exercise for 28 days, five minutes a day. Mindful meditation was one of those exercises, as well as three specific breathing regimens: box breathing, cyclic hyperventilation, or cyclic sighing. Per CNN, the first has a person "breathe in, hold, breathe out, and pause equally (like the sides of a box) to the count of four." For cyclic hyperventilation, a person breathes in slowly, then exhales quickly, over and over.
In cyclic sighing, one breathes in through the nose "until the lungs are halfway full, then pauses briefly," per CNN; the subject continues breathing in a little more, then slowly exhales. "In mindfulness meditation, we instruct people to be aware of their breath but not try to control it," study co-author Dr. David Spiegel says in a Stanford Medicine release. "For the other groups, we asked participants to directly control an activity that normally goes on more or less automatically." After each breathing or meditation session, scientists then examined subjects' mood, anxiety levels, and sleep behaviors, as well as respiratory and heart rate measurements. They found sleep wasn't affected in any of the sessions, while all of the various sessions boosted mood and alleviated anxiety. But one form of breathing was more effective than the others, and even beat out meditation: the slow exhalation of cyclic sighing.
"Cyclic sighing is a pretty rapid way to calm yourself," Spiegel says, per CNN. "Many people can do it about three times in a row and see immediate relief from anxious feelings and stress." The scientists hope their findings can lead to further nonpharmacological treatment options for people with anxiety. That's not to say that sighing is the only effective remedy when the walls feel like they're closing in. Stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill notes that the study is a small one, and that we shouldn't discount meditation or the other types of breathing that could still help. "We know that bringing your attention to any form of breath work starts the process of awareness that feeds mindfulness and its benefits," she says. "As long as we are all experimenting with mind-body connections with open minds and finding something that calms us, yay!" (Read more discoveries stories.)