Just take a deep breath- Can diaphragmatic breathing techniques improve attention and mood while decreasing stress?
If you have ever taken a yoga or meditation class, you may have noticed the emphasis on the breath. In Vinyasa yoga, each movement is linked with an inhalation or exhalation, and many meditation practices involve observing or concentrating on the breath. While there are many known benefits of both yoga and meditation, what about simply focusing on breathing?
This study looked specifically at diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the lungs, separating the chest from the abdomen. When you take a breath in, the diaphragm flattens down, causing the belly to expand out. During exhalation, the diaphragm domes back up towards the chest, helping push air out as the belly retracts. In diaphragmatic breathing exercises, we simply expand on this natural process with deep, slow, and controlled breathing; essentially engaging the diaphragm to its full range of motion. When diaphragmatic breathing is properly done we can slow our breathing rate down from an average of 12-16 breaths per minute to as low as 4-6 per minute!
Forty healthy participants were randomized to either the Breathing Intervention Group or a Control Group. The breathing intervention group was coached on diaphragmatic breathing techniques and practiced them in 15-minute increments, 2-3 times per week, over 8 weeks. They even wore devices to ensure they were fully engaging their diaphragms. Both groups took pre and post tests to assess mood, attention, and changes in the stress hormone, cortisol, measured in the saliva. The group that practiced diaphragmatic breathing showed a significant decrease in negative mood and salivary cortisol. The participants also scored significantly better on tests of sustained attention; even just one 15-minute diaphragmatic breathing session seemed to improve attention.
The main limitation of the study was the real-time training and monitoring techniques, which may be challenging to replicate in a real-life scenario. The participants also had a fifteen-minute resting period, before the fifteen-minute diaphragmatic breathing intervention, which may have affected results. Nevertheless, practicing this simple breathing technique may be an accessible pathway to improved mood, attention, and stress.
Want to give it a try?
Find any comfortable position, sitting or lying down, eyes may be open or closed. Rest one or both hands on the belly and feel it expand out as you take a slow, controlled breath through the nose. You will feel the belly expand, followed by a rise in the chest as you completely fill up with air. Once you feel you can no longer inhale, take a brief pause and, with control, begin to exhale through the nose. Try to slowly exhale all the air out as your belly contracts back in. While this study looked at 15-minute sessions, a few times a week, another study demonstrated benefits from as little as five minutes of daily practice. Start with gentle easy breaths and, like with any exercise, it will get better with practice!
- Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, Wei GX, Li YF. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology. 2017. 8:874.
- Chang SB, Kim HS, Ko YH, Bae CH, An SE. Effects of abdominal breathing on anxiety, blood pressure, peripheral skin temperature and oxygen saturation of pregnant women in preterm labor. Korean Journal Women Health Nursing. 2009. 15 32-42.