Mindfulness, controlled breathing reduce anxiety symptoms


Editor’s note: This story packages with another headlined “Perfectionism leads to unusually high stress levels,” also by Jesse.  

People can make changes in their breathing and physical awareness to combat negative thinking and chronic stress, according to a recent article published by BYU professor Patrick R. Steffen, and BYU clinical psychology doctorate students Tara Austin and Andrea DeBarros.

This study showed chronic stress, which is related to depression and anxiety, can be lessened through biofeedback and mindfulness.

The study “Treating Chronic Stress to Address the Growing Problem of Depression and Anxiety: Biofeedback and Mindfulness as Simple, Effective Preventive Measures” cites this definition of chronic stress. (Chuck Dearden)

Steffen, the director of the clinical psychology program at BYU, said people with anxiety experience worry and concern for the future, but often their worrying is focused on the fear of something bad happening in the future.

Stefan said anxiety can give people boosts of energy in the short term. However, he says the effects are not beneficial in the long term.

“In the long term, it burns people out,” Steffen said.

Steffen suggests seeking out psychotherapy, stress management or mindfulness if anxiety leads to chronic unhappiness, chronic tenseness or physical illness.


Mindfulness is a way of thinking, making oneself aware and accepting of experiences in a non-judgmental way.

The study, “Treating Chronic Stress to Address the Growing Problem of Depression and Anxiety: Biofeedback and Mindfulness as Simple, Effective Preventive Measures” cites the key features of anxiety disorders. (Chuck Dearden)

People who are not aware of “moment-to-moment experience” many times avoid difficult emotions, according to the study. This behavior leads to negative thoughts.

Utah County therapist Camille Foster said people with anxiety tend to have a negative slant on events.

“Everybody with anxiety distorts events and the consequences of the events,” Foster said.

Foster teaches clients to focus on the present moment. She does this by stressing the five senses. Her office has shells and candy, which she said she uses to help people learn how to focus on touch and taste — on the moment.

Steffen suggested practicing 20 minutes of mindfulness per day. He said mindfulness reduces depressive symptoms, regardless of someone’s religious affiliation or spirituality. There are also apps and internet programs geared toward practicing mindfulness.


Biofeedback is the use of machines and sensors that monitor breathing, muscle tension and heart rate on a screen. Therapists then use that information to show clients how to regulate their breathing to calm down.

Biofeedback helps people see what happens to their bodies in a heightened state of stress, and what they can do to return to “healthy regulation.” Steffen suggested breathing in through the nose for five seconds and out through the mouth for five seconds, totaling six full breaths per minute.

Steffen said people with anxiety tend to breathe more quickly than necessary, which leads to panic attacks.

The data in this chart is based on information found in the study, “Treating Chronic Stress to Address the Growing Problem of Depression and Anxiety: Biofeedback and Mindfulness as Simple, Effective Preventive Measures.” (Chuck Dearden)

“You can learn to slow down your breathing, relax your muscles through feedback from the screen,” Steffen said. “Seeing yourself in real time, people can learn to change their physiology in real time.”

In her practice, Foster said she has her clients take quick breaths to see how it affects their bodies. Then she practices slow breathing with them to show them the difference it makes.

The study said there are many benefits to using portable biofeedback devices. They can be used anywhere (with internet and phone applications), reduce clinic visits and cost, fit people’s schedules and avoid the stigma people have with seeking professional help for mental illness.

Effects of using biofeedback and mindfulness

Mindfulness and biofeedback were shown to decrease heart rate, which is often elevated during anxiety attacks.

The data in graph is based on information found in the study, “The Economic Burden of Adults With Major Depressive Disorder in the United States (2005 and 2010)” in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. (Chuck Dearden)

In 2000, it was estimated the cost of depression in the US was $83 billion, and just 10 years later, $210 billion. The costs include working while sick (affecting productivity), medical services and prescription drugs.

“Current approaches of medication and psychotherapy have not been able to stop the rise in disease burden due to difficulties in cost, time, side effects, effectiveness, and stigma,” according to the study.

Anxiety can be overcome, according to Foster.

“You can overcome it with healthy coping skills,” Foster said. “Any client who’s willing to work can overcome their anxiety.”

The study was published in December in the journal, “Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.”

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