Feeling tense? Paying attention to your breathing for a few minutes could soothe your nerves. Practicing such mindful breathing regularly may even lead to better mental health, according to two recent studies.
In an experiment reported in May in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, researchers at Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught healthy subjects to breathe deeply into their abdomen. After subjects maintained attention on breathing this way for 20 minutes, they had fewer negative feelings, more of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin in their blood, and more oxygenated hemoglobin in the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level processing.
Another study, in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research, looked at depression symptoms. Investigators at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany asked healthy participants to stay in mindful contact with their breathing—maintaining continual awareness without letting their mind wander. During the 18-minute trials researchers asked the subjects frequently whether they were succeeding in doing so. Those who were able to sustain mindful contact with their breathing reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer of the other symptoms of depression.
“In my opinion, the cultivation of mindfulness through breathing meditation helps to prevent depression,” says study author Jan M. Burg, although he cautions that this interpretation goes beyond the findings of his research. Mindfulness, Burg explains, may allow people to disengage from dysfunctional rumination, a central risk factor for depression.
Anyone can try a bit of this technique on the fly. Simply sit up comfortably and breathe naturally. Focus your attention on your breath, feeling it in detail—in the nasal cavity, the chest and the abdomen. If you notice your mind wandering, try to redirect your attention to your breathing—it is important, Burg says, not to criticize yourself during this process. At first it might be difficult to stay focused, but with some practice you should be able to hit the mark these studies showed to be beneficial, about 20 minutes. And once you have the hang of it, even a few minutes of mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected before a high-stakes meeting or any other stressful situation.