Improve Your Study Performance with Paced Breathing

A lot has been written about breathing, meditation and how it can help our daily life. Hence it isn’t really a surprise that study performance can significantly benefit from the right breathing techniques as well.

So how can paced breathing improve study performance? Recent research with healthy adults has shown that paced breathing benefits your learning effort by 1. Decreasing anxiety, depression, 2. Enhancing sustained attention, 3. Reducing stress, 4.Improved sleep

There is no doubt taking control of your breath benefits your health, your daily life, and your study. But what exactly is the right pace, what are good exercises to begin with, and what tools and techniques can you use? Keep on reading to find out.

What is paced breathing?

Paced breathing is a way of breathing in a defined pattern of inhaling, pausing, exhaling and pausing again. Though there are different patterns and approaches the overall goal is to create a steady breathing rhythm and reduce the overall amount of breaths per minute and hence reduce stress chemicals to trigger a relaxation response. Deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing also relies on specific breathing patterns but paced breathing in and of itself focuses more on the rhythm rather than the “which body part”. You can watch this TED talk by Dr. Alan Watkins where he performs a live experiment on how adding a simple rhythm to breathing changes someone’s focus abilities.

Benefits of paced breathing for your study performance

As outlined in the summary there are 3 major areas how the right breathing techniques can benefit learning efforts:

1. Decreasing anxiety and depression

Do you sometimes or often experience one or more symptoms like dizziness, nausea, a lump in the throat, confusion or other things before a stressful situation like an exam or test? This is the typical emergency reaction of your body. Paced breathing can help you reverse these symptoms. By slowing down your breath and following a specific breathing pattern you can trigger a calming response. This helps you to regain control of what you have learned and you can shift your focus toward the upcoming tasks. If you like to find out more and whether you suffer from test anxiety you can take the test I created here.

2. Enhancing sustained attention

Breathing exercises to gain, keep and improve focus is a strategy that works very well. While doing the research for “Does Meditation Help With Exams?” I discovered that the easiest way to get started to prolong my attention span is to learn how to control my breathing rhythm. This was especially helpful when I got “nervous” hearing my phone vibrate because of a new message or email – who could it be? Something important? Do I miss important news? 99% of the time the answer is no. So having a breathing pattern ready helps me immediately to get back on track, just try it out.

3. Improved sleep

The sleep benefits focus more on falling asleep rather than sleep itself. Focusing on your breath when you are trying to fall asleep will calm you down and distract you from thoughts of tasks you have to accomplish the next day. Once you have learned how to calm yourself down by controlling your breath you can easily drift away into your dreams. The greatest benefit of all is that this also works the day before an exam where a good night’s sleep is a major factor for success. Learn everything about what to do the day before the exam from my article here.

4. Reducing stress

Study stress is basically a combination of the first two items, the constant pressure and anxiety to pass the test and the difficulty to keep focus. This causes stress and the symptoms are similar to the ones I described above. In the next paragraph, I will show you some very simple breathing techniques.

Breathing exercises and techniques

Equal Breathing

One of the breathing patterns I included in my App (more below) is the equal breathing technique (4141). You inhale slowly for 4 seconds, hold for 1, exhale for 4 and hold again for 1 second. Repeat this cycle 4 or 5 times. This is a universal tool to calm down and carry on. You can use this anytime, anywhere. 4 seconds is the value most often recommended in the articles I read about it but if you are feeling uncomfortable with the length you can shorten it, just keep the inhale and exhale duration equal.

The 478 technique

Another very well known technique that is taught by Dr.Weil (Source) is the 478 technique. In contrast to an equal inhale and exhale rhythm this technique focuses on long hold and exhale periods. The pattern is a 4 quiet second inhale through your nose, a holding time of 7 seconds and a noisy exhale through your mouth. This was actually the first pattern I tried and for a beginner, I found these long periods rather difficult. So when you are new to breathe control I recommend starting with simple equal breathing and shorter inhale, exhale cycles to get used to it. To practice that I found especially at the beginning a guiding App that doesn’t disturb my daily business would be very helpful, so I wrote one.

Tools to practice breathing

There are many mobile apps available to help you practice your breathing and reminding you throughout the day. I found these Apps more distracting than helpful because every time a reminder comes up you pick up your phone, breathe and while you already have your mobile quickly check the news or social media. This interrupts a focused study so I decided to write a non-intrusive App myself which sits in the menu bar of my Mac. This helps me to study, read, or work and practice my breathing at the same time. Take a look at the following screenshot.

Breath Pacer for MAC OSC

This simple breath trainer is an unobtrusive reminder to control your breathing and teaches you the right techniques on a daily basis.

  1. Configure one breathing cycle
    Define the time for inhaling, hold, exhaling and hold in 0.25s steps
  2. Adjust the number of cycles
    To get used to a specific breathing pattern it is recommended to repeat a cycle several times, adjust the number if the default setting is too much or not enough
  3. Set the repetition timer
    To really get used to paced breathing you should repeat the exercise throughout the day. Simply set a time in minutes when the exercise should start again

The little icon in the menubar will show you when to inhale, exhale and hold as well when it rests and a new cycle is about to begin.

You can configure a sound as a reminder so you don’t miss any exercise.

Don’t know where to begin? Just pick 1 of the 2 presets we discussed earlier and get started right away.

Improve your life quality and performance now by learning how to breathe.

Just go ahead and check it here on the MAC Store or directly from my shop here.

Related questions

How do you know if you are breathing normally? Shallow breathing or shortness of breath is basically when your inhale and exhale times are shorter than average. Studies have shown that the respiratory rate for a healthy human is between 12-18 per minute. This translates to an inhale/exhale duration of between 1.5 to 2.5 seconds. Hence anything shorter can be seen as not normal breathing. Note that the breath/minute depends on the age of a person.

How do you breathe while studying? 1. Learn how to breathe properly 2.Take regular breaks and do a breathing exercise 3.Conduct a long breathing exercise to calm and prepare your mind before a study session

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