You’ve heard it countless times throughout your life. “Just take a breath and calm down,” or “you’re too worked up, go take a breather.” How often do any of us follow that advice, though?
Breathing is a necessity of human life and automatic bodily process occurring, quite literally, all the time. Beyond this main purpose, however, taking conscious control of one’s breath via breathing techniques can also serve as a great way to calm both the body and the mind. Of course, whenever someone is feeling particularly anxious, angry, or upset, taking a deep breath is usually the farthest thing from their mind.
Now, a new study from Yale University is lending further credence to the notion that breathing techniques are an essential ingredient when it comes to managing stress, overcoming anxiety, and building stronger mental health in general. The team at Yale examined the benefits of three distinct wellness programs on groups of college students and found that the program focusing heavily on breathing techniques was the most helpful by far.
“I didn’t realize how much of it was physiology, how you control the things inside you with breathing,” comments Anna Wilkinson, a Yale student (class of 2022) who took part in the research, in a release. “I come out of breathing and meditation as a happier, more balanced person, which is something I did not expect at all.”
Ms. Wilkinson was assigned to the SKY Campus Happiness program, which turned out to be the most beneficial of all three included wellness strategies. Students enrolled in this course reported improvements across six life areas: mindfulness, stress, depression, mental health, social connectedness, and positive affect. The SKYCH program primarily teaches enrollees a specific breathing technique, in conjunction with yoga, service activities, and social connection.
Davornne Lindo, a member of the Yale track team who tried out the SKYCH program as well, had this to say about what she learned: “Now that I have these techniques to help me, I would say that my mentality is a lot healthier. I can devote time to studying and not melting down. Races have gone better. Times are dropping.”
The second examined wellness strategy, known as “Foundations of Emotional Intelligence,” was created by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. This program emphasizes recognizing and controlling one’s emotions, yet only produced one benefit among participating students; greater mindfulness.
The third wellness program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, is a mindfulness meditation course. This approach didn’t yield any benefits for participants.
In total, 135 Yale students took part in this research. Each student was randomly assigned to one of the three eight-week-long wellness programs, and then after the course had been completed, participants’ wellbeing was compared to a control group of college students who hadn’t received any wellness training.
Why college students? While adults are no strangers to stress, college students are especially vulnerable to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and worry, particularly when the calendar draws closer to the final exam or midterm. These findings can be applied to adults as well; college students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from taking an extra breath here or there.
“In addition to academic skills, we need to teach students how to live a balanced life,” says lead study author Emma Seppälä, faculty director of the Women’s Leadership Program at Yale School of Management. “Student mental health has been on the decline over the last 10 years, and with the pandemic and racial tensions, things have only gotten worse.”
The courses examined in this study were held in person among students. But, researchers say the programs can also be taught online, which is a big plus considering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if you feel like you don’t have the time for a dedicated course on wellness or specific breathing techniques, just a few deep, deliberate breaths can go a long way toward staying calm in a trying situation. Try to keep these findings in mind the next time you’re feeling anxious or nervous.
The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.