Yogic breathing improved university students' response to stress

Jacqueline Mitchell jsmitche@bidmc.harvard.edu

JULY 15, 2020

Researchers evaluated efficacy of stress management practices with randomized controlled trial

Boston – University students are uniquely vulnerable to stress, both psychological and physiological. In addition to academic and financial demands, pursuing higher education often means leaving home and building new social networks. Campuses are increasingly offering wellness workshops to help young adults manage their stress, but few rigorously controlled studies exist to help determine best practices.

A new study led by Michael R. Goldstein, PhD, Research Fellow in the Department of Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), helps fill that gap. In a randomized controlled trial of two life skills workshops designed to teach university students to cope with stress, the researchers found that the program that focused on yogic breathing—a meditative practice that involves slow and fast patterns of breath—improved participants’ ability to cope with stress, as measured by both self-report and heart rate data, compared to a workshop that focused on cognitive approaches to stress. The findings appear in the Journal of American College Health.

“Due to the many challenges and transitions associated with life as a student, coping strategies become paramount in supporting young adults’ health, developmental growth and social relationships,” said Goldstein, who conducted the research as a graduate student at University of Arizona prior to joining BIDMC. “We investigated the effects of two wellness workshops with contrasting approaches to stress management, and while both were popular with participants, the one that incorporated yogic breathing demonstrated benefits that were stronger, longer-lasting, and evident across more measures of wellness than the cognitive comparison workshop.”

Goldstein and colleagues, including his graduate advisor and senior author John J. B. Allen, PhD, of University of Arizona, recruited 108 undergraduate and graduate students and sorted them into one of the two campus-based wellness workshops. The SKY Campus Happiness Program is a four-day, 18-hour program that focuses on yogic breathing techniques and social connectedness to enhance stress management. The Wisdom on Wellness (WOW) program, created specifically for this study to serve as a control for SKY, used similar course design and materials but emphasized cognitive approaches to stress management and did not include meditative yogic breathing.

Participants were asked to complete online questionnaires immediately before and after the four-day workshops and again three months later. Participants were asked to fill out a series of questionnaires to reflect on their perceived stress levels, sleep quality, social connectedness, satisfaction with life and more. Physiological data, including heart and respiration rates, were also collected.

While both workshops were rated favorably, with all participants citing improvements in their feelings of social connectedness, only participants in the SKY program reported significant decreases in perceived stress levels, sleep disturbances and a number of other measures of well-being.

Physiological data revealed both groups saw improvement in heart rate as a cardiac measure of stress during and after laboratory experiments to include a physiological stress response. However, only participants of the SKY program appeared to develop resiliency against anticipatory stress.

“When we anticipate a stressful situation, our breathing and heart rates naturally go up,” Goldstein explained. “In this study, we observed that pattern for the cognitive group, but the yogic breathing group seemed to show protection against that type of stress. Their heart rate increased only slightly when they knew a stressful situation was coming.”

The researchers suggest their findings may be of use to campus health providers and university administrators seeking to provide young adults with the coping skills necessary to succeed.

“College students are a valuable target for interventions aiming to enhance stress-management and wellness given they are learning habits with long-term implications for their health and wellness,” Goldstein said. “The SKY workshop likely has several active ingredients that contributed to the positive effects we demonstrated. Future research to disentangle these components to evaluate their relative contributions is needed.”

Co-authors included Rivian K. Lewin, of University of Memphis.

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

This research was funded by a Mind and Life Institute Varela Award and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

About Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a leading academic medical center, where extraordinary care is supported by high-quality education and research. BIDMC is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and consistently ranks as a national leader among independent hospitals in National Institutes of Health funding. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,800 physicians and 38,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.