The difficult period we are experiencing is undoubtedly also bringing with it anxieties and fears that may reflect in sleep disturbances during the night. However, there are breathing techniques that can help, if not totally at least in part, to regain calm and to improve the quality of sleep. A very recent research, published a few weeks ago in the journal Sleep Medicine (Yu Liu et al, Sleep Medicine, Oct 2020), managed to show that diaphragmatic breathing exercises have been found to be useful in counteracting stress and promoting good restful sleep.
The researchers have decided to focus their attention on that category of workers who are probably experiencing the harshest effects of the pandemic, both in terms of health and anxiety and stress, the nurses, who often, due to the pressure they are subjected to during the day, at night have problems falling asleep and have disturbed sleep. 140 nurses were recruited, all in contact with patients with a diagnosis of COVID and therefore under stress. Nurses were asked to perform diaphragmatic breathing sessions lasting 30 minutes each day for 4 weeks. These sessions were divided into the following steps. The study participants had to sit comfortably in a chair, to relax their shoulders, to close their eyes and to focus on the feelings of the moment. Then, they were required to inhale slowly and deeply through the nose and then exhale, again slowly through the mouth. Then followed a cycle of diaphragmatic breathing, that is, during the inhalation the women had to contract the muscles of the diaphragm and at the same time relax the abdominal muscles and bulge the belly, with the exhalation they had to relax the diaphragm, to contract the abdominal muscles and retract the abdomen. They should do this sequence for 20 minutes. Then, as for the final part of the breathing technique, the study participants had to focus again on their feelings and relax the body.
At the end of the four weeks of treatment, all the nurses were asked to fill out tests to assess their sleep quality and anxiety. In addition to this, also their general health was checked and compared to that at the beginning of the study. What emerged was that, following diaphragmatic breathing sessions, it was possible to observe a reduction in blood pressure and, at the same time, an increase in the variability of the heart rhythm. The latter factor is an index of the body's ability to adapt to stress and high values indicate a prevalence of the parasympathetic system, the part of the central nervous system that promotes relaxation. Not only that, the study participants also reported a higher capacity in falling asleep and a better quality of sleep that reflected in a reduction of anxiety during the day.
Breathing techniques can therefore help us get through a period of great stress, such as the one we are experiencing, with beneficial effects both on activities during the day and on sleep at night.