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Could Deep Breathing Really Be Part of the Solution to Our Mental-Health Crisis?

It’s not a long-term fix for those with serious issues, but as a means of quickly addressing the current mental health crisis we’re facing, it’s surprisingly effective

Anyone with chronic anxiety has probably been told to try taking deep breaths before. It can feel super patronizing — oh, guess I just wasn’t performing my most basic physiological function, right, problem solved. But the thing is, mental-health issues are through the damn roof right now. According to the CDC, 25.5 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 have seriously considered suicide during the pandemic. 

That is, to put it bluntly, a fucking crisis. Without the proper resources to adequately treat mental illness on this level, we need quick, accessible solutions that can be made available to everyone. As two studies published in July from researchers at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Arizona and Yale suggests, maybe something as basic as breathing could be it.

One study compared a breathing-based student mental-health program to a mindfulness-based program at Yale, in collaboration with the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. The second compared the same breathing-based program to another centered on cognitive-focused intervention with students at Harvard and the University of Arizona. In both studies, the breathing technique programs were found to be dramatically more effective. 

The breathing-based program, called SKY Campus Happiness, specifically utilized Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), a form of meditative breathing used in yoga. Per a report from the International Journal of Yoga, SKY breathing involves multiple different techniques centered around both slow and fast rhythmic, cyclical breathing. 

According to Cathy Allsman, a psychologist in Miami, this type of intentional breathing impacts the vagus nerve, triggering a parasympathetic response in the body that lowers the heart rate, and therefore, your sense of stress. “It’s one of the quickest ways I know to disconnect the stress response,” Allsman says of practicing deep breathing. “If you make your out-breath longer than your in-breath, you can often feel the relief.” 

In the Yale study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, 131 students were enrolled in an eight-week class in which SKY was practiced alongside other forms of yoga and meditation, gratitude practices and a curriculum focused upon leadership and service skills. Two sets of students were enrolled in similar programs studying emotional intelligence and mindfulness, instead. Of the three programs, only students enrolled in the SKY program measured improvements in depression, social-connectedness, stress, positivity and mindfulness. In the emotional intelligence program, students reported an increase in mindfulness; students in the mindfulness program, however, saw no improvements. 

In the Harvard and University of Arizona study, published in the Journal of American College Health, students were similarly divided between a SKY program and a cognitive-based program on managing stress, though the programs were conducted over four-day workshops instead of semester-long courses. Again, SKY participants saw improvements across a variety of mental-health indicators that the other group did not. Furthermore, SKY participants showed a decrease in physiological stress, as measured by heart rate. 

While both of these studies were conducted in highly-regulated university settings with a small demographic, they point to a possible solution for addressing the mental-health crisis that plagues young people in particular today. Not everyone has access to Harvard workshops or Yale courses, but a program like SKY Campus Happiness could potentially be implemented as a low-cost digital solution. And unlike traditional talk therapy, SKY breathing can be conducted in a group setting, making it available to far more people at one time. 

Allsman notes, though, that it’s important for people going into a meditative breathing practice to have some type of access to a mental-health professional as well. “If somebody is truly suffering on a clinical level or perhaps has abuse in their background that they haven’t dealt with, this kind of breathing has the potential to bring that to the surface,” says Allsman. 

So while simply taking deep breaths won’t cure you of your mental-health woes entirely, breathing may still offer relief when practiced in a regimented way. Considering that bleak statistic from the CDC, it’s clear that there is a need for accessible therapeutic programs that can potentially address multiple patients at one time. The SKY program isn’t yet available for everyone who needs it, but it hints at an approachable place to start handling the mental-health crisis in front of us.