Stressed and tense individuals often are recommended to change the way they breathe. However, psychophysiological effects of breathing instructions on respiration are rarely measured. We tested the immediate effects of short and simple breathing instructions in 13 people seeking treatment for panic disorder, 15 people complaining of daily tension, and 15 controls. Participants underwent a 3-hour laboratory session during which instructions to direct attention to breathing and anti-hyperventilation instructions to breathe more slowly, shallowly, or both were given. Respiratory, cardiac, and electrodermal measures were recorded. The anti-hyperventilation instructions failed to raise end-tidal pCO2 above initial baseline levels for any of the groups because changes in respiratory rate were compensated for by changes in tidal volume and vice versa. Paying attention to breathing significantly reduced respiratory rate and decreased tidal volume instability compared to the other instructions. Shallow breathing made all groups more anxious than did other instructions. Heart rate and skin conductance were not differentially affected by instructions. We conclude that simple and short instructions to alter breathing do not change respiratory or autonomic measures in the direction of relaxation, except for attention to breathing, which increases respiratory stability. To understand the results of breathing instructions for stress and anxiety management, respiration needs to be monitored physiologically.
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We have interpreted increased variability as a sign of discomfort because anxiety patients tend to show greater respiratory variability than controls (Wilhelm, Trabert, & Roth, 2001). On the other hand, we recognize that healthy breathing has a chaotic nature with a certain minimum variability (Boiten, Frijda, & Wientjes, 1994)
We explored this possibility by correlating (Spearman’s rho) the change scores of relaxation with the change scores of CO2 for the relaxation instruction and each breathing instruction. Of the 5 correlations, the association between relaxation and CO2 was significant only for slow breathing (ρ = 0.33, p = 0.04).
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This research was supported by grants of the National Institutes of Health (MH066953-01) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (ROT0042825) awarded to Dr. Roth.
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Conrad, A., Müller, A., Doberenz, S. et al. Psychophysiological Effects of Breathing Instructions for Stress Management. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback 32, 89–98 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-007-9034-x