The Research Behind Breathwork and Breathless, Bridging the Gap Between Science and Spirituality
Dubbed ‘The New Yoga’, breathwork has been one of the fastest growing trends in the wellness industry since 2019. It’s experienced such a surge in popularity that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an entirely new phenomenon. The truth is it’s been around for thousands of years.
In fact, breathwork has a vast and complex history that spans many disciplines and cultures; yogis, monks and meditators have been practising various forms of breathwork for millennia; psychedelic communities have experienced the spiritual highs and transformative power of conscious breathing since Woodstock; and scientific and medical researchers have been studying the breath for well over four decades, uncovering its immense potential and power.
This potential includes regulating the autonomic nervous system, modulating neurophysiological activity, improving cardiovascular and respiratory function, and even aiding in healing. It’s this power that makes breathwork an ideal complementary therapy for conditions like anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD.
Studies also show the benefits of breathwork include improved sleep, relief from menopausal symptoms, and better post-surgery recovery – but it’s not just about treating ailments; intentional deep breathing can also enhance cognitive and athletic performance, creativity, and overall well-being.
Breath is the bridge between ancient and modern, the head and the heart, science and spirituality.
The connection between ancient practices and modern science is very clear: intentional deep breathing is a natural and effective way to improve not only physical health, but mental and emotional health as well.
Breathwork has received an enormous amount of attention and hype in recent years, with a vast array of touted benefits that can be bewildering and, at times, even outlandish. Although the field of research around breathwork is well established and incorporates well over 4 decades worth of clinical trials, it remains highly diverse and extensive, with studies published across journals ranging from neuroscience to yoga. Added to that, researchers often blend various breathwork styles – such as yogic, slow, deep, or abdominal – which can make it challenging to navigate the findings. Nonetheless, many well-founded conclusions have been made, with one consistent finding that everyone agrees upon: conscious breathing works through the parasympathetic nervous system.
In the less robust studies, we’re still seeing significant evidence that deep breathing can help with post-stroke aphasia, atrial fibrillation, heart failure, recovery from bypass surgery, ADHD, chronic neck pain, quitting smoking, wellbeing in breast-cancer patients, and even menopausal symptoms, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Our goal is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access and benefit from the wealth of contemporary and ancient practices that are now being validated by current research. Our mission is to bring breathwork to the world. So, we recently collaborated with a group of researchers, practitioners, and experts in psychiatry to publish a research paper on breathwork and anxiety in Brain Sciences, (January 2023) an international, peer-reviewed journal on neuroscience.
We could see that a comprehensive review of the existing literature was needed in order to bridge the gap between old and new research; despite the decades of study, breathwork has only been partially investigated by clinical research and psychiatric medical communities. Our meta-analysis of clinical trials, spanning four decades, explored how breathwork could be a solution to the rise in mental health and anxiety disorders, and looked at the effectiveness of current approaches.
We saw a real need to create coherence within the extensive and diverse domain of breathwork research. Our objective was to consolidate research findings, bridge the gaps in our understanding, and also look at breathwork’s versatility and accessibility as a self-care practice. In doing so, we aimed to highlight the extraordinary potency of the breath and the intersection of science and spirituality.
We identified some exceptional breathwork outcomes in psychiatric research, where it has been clinically shown to diagnostically improve symptoms of:
In psychiatric research and clinical practice, breathwork has been shown to diagnostically improve symptoms of the following
Our study also highlighted that current drug-psychotherapy protocols for the treatment of anxiety disorders are sadly falling short (and often completely missing the mark), and as such, there’s a real and pressing need for non-drug therapies that can be self-administered and used by large populations, easily and cost effectively.
“Breathwork meets all of the requirements that our study identified: it’s proven to be safe, effective and accessible, and we believe that it could be a fundamental part of the solution to the unprecedented explosion in stress and related disorders such as anxiety and depression that we are seeing worldwide.”
“Something the study really highlighted was how illogical it is that treatments focusing at least in part on the breath are not already the gold standard, given the bi-directional relationship between anxiety and breathing. The breath is the most readily available tool worldwide for anyone alive today. Regardless of race, religion, or social class, we all breathe, and in the modern world, that means we can all learn to breathe a little better”, says Egberts.
The connection between breathing and mental health is a well-established area of research, and the evidence shows that people who have difficulty breathing or who have poor breathing habits are at a higher risk for developing anxiety and other mental health problems. There are a few ways in which poor breathing habits can contribute to mental health issues. One of the primary ways is through the activation of the body’s stress response system. When people breathe shallowly or rapidly, they are more likely to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, panic, and stress.
Likewise, when people are experiencing anxiety or other mental health problems, they may be more likely to engage in poor breathing habits. For example, they may breathe rapidly or shallowly, which can exacerbate their symptoms and lead to a cycle of poor breathing and anxiety. People may become chronic over-breathers over the long term, which adds fuel to the fire and loops into a vicious cycle. Certain health issues can also contribute to poor breathing habits. For example, people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may have difficulty breathing, which can lead to anxiety and other mental health problems. Similarly, people who have experienced trauma or have a history of panic attacks may also have difficulty breathing, which can exacerbate their symptoms.
Overall, the relationship between breathing and mental health is complex and multifaceted, but breathwork has been shown to be effective as a therapy. Whilst poor breathing habits can contribute to mental health issues, improving breathing techniques and engaging in mindfulness-based practices can have a positive impact on mental health and overall wellbeing and have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Learning how to restore the natural flow of the breath is an essential first step to retraining the breath and moving away from the cycle of stress-anxiety and over-breathing towards a natural flow that supports both physical and mental health. And it’s not just deep breathing that’s been shown to work. The research illuminates that there’s also a case for conscious super-ventilation.
So, to put it all in a nutshell: There is an undeniable link between breathing and anxiety disorders; the way we breathe matters for our physical health and more specifically for our mental health.
2020 will be remembered as the year when the world collectively held its breath. The unprecedented global pandemic brought the world to a standstill, leaving us breathless in the worst possible of ways.
As uncertainty and fear spread rapidly across the globe, we were forced to confront the state of our own health, mental well-being and the vital importance of breathing. Stress, anxiety, depression and mental health difficulties were already a significant issue before this time, and it may come as no surprise to learn that they have skyrocketed globally since. Mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression have now reached epidemic proportions, rising in 2020 by 25% globally and causing the World Health Organisation (WHO) to implore world leaders to invest more seriously in mental health.
The pandemic brought renewed focus to the connection between our breath and our overall well-being, and has emphasised the need to prioritise respiratory health and breathing practices for individuals and communities alike.
Another significant study was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in January 2023; a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials, titled “Effect of breathwork on Stress and Mental Health”.
The study found that breathwork significantly reduces stress and improves mental health outcomes; the authors highlight that breathwork could be a part of the solution to meeting the need for more accessible approaches to stress and mental health conditions. The intention of the researchers was to investigate the effectiveness of breathwork as an intervention; to sort the data from ‘the hype’; their interest arising out of the unprecedented amount of public attention on breathwork and the many supposed beneficial effects on health and well-being.
As with the study published in Brain Sciences, the study published in Nature recognised that current protocols for the treatment of depression and anxiety usually include a combination of drugs and psychotherapy/cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Both of the studies showed that these protocols are leaving patients feeling considerably dissatisfied; illuminating the fact that the traditional drug-therapy approaches to treating anxiety disorders are not working so well.
Many patients do not recover and waiting times can be long, in addition to extensive professional training and ongoing supervision being required for therapists. Drug side effects also play a large part in the problem and result in lack of patient compliance, as do issues around the cost and accessibility of treatment. Added to that, therapy is usually individualised and offered on a one-to-one basis, making it resource intensive.
The studies highlight a real and pressing need for non-drug therapies that can be self-administered and used by large populations, easily and cost-effectively, to reduce the stress and anxiety that people are facing. We believe breathwork meets this remit.
Although dysfunctional breathing is a hallmark of anxiety disorders, our study found that standard treatment protocols today do not tackle, or even consider, poor breathing habits and patterns in patients who are suffering anxiety or depression.
Whilst researchers found that breathwork significantly decreased stress, anxiety, and depression, they also found that gold standard treatments pay zero or very little attention to breathing.
Given the robust correlation between breathing techniques and improved symptoms of anxiety disorders, it raises the question as to why current protocols do not focus on breathing. People with stress and anxiety disorders tend to chronically breathe faster and more erratically. Researchers have shown that slow breathing practices are effective in reducing stress and mental health issues – this is part of the reason that slow breathing practices have received most of the research attention to date.
Given the need for effective treatments that can be offered at scale with limited resources, interventions focusing on deliberately changing breathing might have significant potential. Indeed, some government public health platforms already recommend deep breathing for stress, anxiety and panic symptoms (NHS and IAPT, UK)” say the authors of the study that was published in Nature.
Breathing exercises can be easily taught to both trainers and practitioners, and learned in group settings methods remotely and online. Giving patients AND practitioners access to: