Over the years, controversy has raged over what, if anything, the benefits of meditation are. This skepticism stems from a few sources: Some believe mediation is an ancient practice incompatible with modern life, while others think it’s a fad that will come and go like so many others.
Although there’s still much more to learn about meditation, research does show undeniable benefits. For instance, meditation can improve emotional regulation, attention, and self-awareness. Other research has shown meditation can even help to prevent heart disease, improve immune function, and decrease glucose and insulin resistance.
That being said, it’s less clear how to incorporate meditation into one’s routine. There are so many different ways to meditate that it can be hard to pin down which practice is right for you, and some meditation practices require a hefty time commitment.
Fortunately, the scientific process is beginning to shed light on the most productive ways to meditate. Recent research shows that even non-experienced meditators benefited greatly from a 13-minute guided meditation session every day for eight weeks. The session involved step-by-step guidance through a set of breathing exercises, bringing one’s attention to different parts of the body. After four weeks of meditation and again at eight weeks, researchers subjected participants to a battery of tests designed to assess their mood, cognitive function (including memory and attention), sleep quality, and ability to regulate their emotions. They showed that after eight weeks of meditation, but not four, participants had improved abilities to attend to various tasks, better memories, reduced anxiety, and less fatigue.
These results might convince many to block out 13 minutes of their day for meditation, but others may wonder about other options that take less time. In fact, research published this year showed a specific breathing exercise sometimes referred to as “cyclic sighing,” which involves breathing in through your nose and slowly exhaling through your mouth, has an incredible ability to lower anxiety and improve overall mood.
Remarkably, the breathing exercise was shown to be even more beneficial than meditation. In the study, researchers had participants engage in different breathing exercises or meditation without any focus on breathing for five minutes a day for one month. Throughout this time, the researchers assessed various psychological and physiological states and found that cyclic sighing showed the largest increase over other techniques.
The researchers propose a few reasons why this breathing technique has such a strong impact. For one, it improves physiology, brain function, and mood through influencing the vagus nerve, which controls bodily functions such as heart rate. A decreased heart rate, for example, could have a calming effect. Cyclic sighing also enhances interoceptive processes, which refers to an awareness and understanding of the body’s signals (e.g., Is my heart racing? Is my stomach upset?). Better interoceptive awareness can help us interpret our body’s signals and allow greater control over our mood.
They also posited that the breathing technique influences parts of the brain that regulate mood and arousal, and when we exert deliberate control over our breathing, we create a sense of calmness by reducing activity in areas of our brain responsible for a threat or stress response, like the anterior insula.
It’s important to note that most meditation practices include a focus on breath. This work supports the notion that focusing on deliberate breathing (cyclic sighing, in particular) can have a powerful effect on its own, without other techniques often included in meditation.
And although it took a month to show that the long-term impact of cyclic sighing was superior to the other techniques, all of the approaches showed an almost immediate impact on mood and anxiety. So the next time you’re not sure how or whether you have enough time to meditate, just take a few breaths and see how you feel.
Author: Ryan Curl, Ph.D