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Wellness Tip

Breathe Away Holiday Stress

by Anna Marrian  

The holiday season is here, and for many people, that means not just festivities, friends, and family but a boatload of stress. Indeed, a Healthline survey of 2,280 people, conducted in 2015, found that over 60 percent reported experiencing stress over the holidays—and that was true across all age groups surveyed.

Stressed-out folks are often advised to “breathe,” and that’s good advice; deep, even breathing helps to activate the body’s relaxation response, an antidote to the stress reaction (and something you can do anywhere, including a tense holiday table). Now preliminary research from Brigham Young University has suggested that a specific breathing technique—called Resonance Frequency (RF) breathing—is especially effective at calming the nervous system, even compared to other breathing methods. Published in Frontiers in Public Health, the study included 95 participants who were assigned to do one of three techniques for 15 minutes in a lab setting. One group did RF breathing, which involves slowing breathing down to about six breaths per minute, versus the usual 12 to 20 breaths per minute. The other groups sat quietly or practiced a slightly faster breathing technique.

The researchers measured the participants’ mood, blood pressure, and heart rate variability at baseline and after the breathing exercise. Heart rate variability is the variation in time intervals between heart beats; it’s sometimes used as a measure of adaptability to stress, with higher variability indicating greater adaptability. Of the three groups, only those who practiced RF breathing had statistically significant improvements in blood pressure and heart rate variability, compared with the other groups. (They also reported improved mood compared with the other groups, but the results didn’t reach statistical significance.)

It’s not clear whether the advantage of RF over other types of breathing would persist over time or whether these lab results would translate to real-life situations. Nor is it clear how much daily practice would be needed to maintain the benefit (the study authors suggest 15 minutes a day). But if you want to try it, it can’t hurt and it might help—and once you’ve got it down, you can use it on the fly, anywhere at any time. To do it, breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds, then out through pursed lips for a count of six seconds. Focus on breathing in and out of your belly (you should feel your abdomen distend as you breathe in). David Eddie, a fellow in Clinical Psychology at Harvard Medical School, demonstrates the RF technique in this video.

Also see Meditation for Your Brain and Body.