The average person sighs about 12 times per hour, often as an involuntary reflex that we don’t even notice. When there is a feeling behind a sigh, it’s often not a happy one—think sighs of frustration or boredom. But research shows that sighing intentionally and consciously can change how we feel for the better, generating positive emotions and reducing stress.
“A sigh is a psychophysiological disrupter,” says Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, a psychiatrist, co-author of “The Healing Power of the Breath,” and co-founder of the Breath-Body-Mind Foundation, which teaches breathwork to survivors of disaster. “Signals from the respiratory system have a top priority over pretty much any other signal from the body, especially when there’s a sudden change. So when you change your pattern of breathing, you suddenly change all of the signaling up to the brain,” Gerbarg said. That includes the amygdala, which impacts our emotional experience; the thalamus, influencing our alertness; and the prefrontal cortex, affecting our decision making.
“As far as we know, [sighing] is the fastest way to deliberately calm down,” says Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University and host of the Huberman Lab podcast, who studies the emotional and physiological effects of sighing. Beyond the differences between inhaling and exhaling, there are three types of respiration: normal breathing, gasping and sighing. When you sigh, you’re reinflating hundreds of millions of collapsed alveoli, tiny air sacs, in the lungs. That improves lung functioning by suddenly expanding, clearing and opening up airways, infusing even more oxygen into the bloodstream—as well as balancing the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in our brain and body, Huberman explains.
In a study published in January in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, Huberman and colleagues examined a technique known as “cyclic sighing.” To produce a sigh, people were instructed to close their lips and slowly inhale through the nose; then take a second inhale, completely filling the lungs; and then release an extended exhale from the mouth. Cyclic sighing involves gently repeating this sigh continuously for five minutes. The researchers found that people who practiced cyclic sighing every day for a month experienced reduced anxiety and increased positive emotions, with better results than other relaxation techniques such as mindful meditation.
“What’s surprising is that practicing cyclic sighing for five minutes during the day also decreased respiratory rate during sleep, which suggests that it’s possible to train our nervous system to become calmer, even when we’re not actively engaged in the breathing practice,” says lead study author Dr. Melis Yilmaz Balban, a neuroscientist at Stanford. It also increases feelings of control, which brings emotional benefits as well. According to Huberman, “Breathing represents a bridge between conscious and subconscious control of the nervous system.”
The pace and fluidity of your breath also play’s significant role in how you feel. James Nestor, a science journalist and the author of “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” explains that most people take too many breaths per minute: “When we overbreathe, we send the nervous system signals that we’re stressed, which further disrupts our breathing cadence. It’s a negative feedback loop.” Intentionally heaving a physiological sigh in one way to recalibrate from breathing too much or holding our breath, as we do when we’re anxious. “This isn’t a placebo or magic, it’s basic biology,” says Nestor.
This isn’t to say we should be sighing all day long. Excessive sighing offloads too much carbon dioxide, which can lead to symptoms of hyperventilation and is associated with panic and other anxiety disorders, warns Dr. Elke Vlemincx, an assistant professor at Vrije University in Amsterdam. Gerbarg also notes that intentional, repeated sighing may not be helpful for individuals with asthma or with pulmonary conditions. “The biological activities like a sigh have immensely complex effects and the body has spent millions of years evolving ways to do this, we don’t need to tinker with it too much,” she said.
“I wish there was just a blanket prescription we could give everybody, but everyone’s going to respond differently,” Nestor says. “Asthmatics and panic sufferers need different breathing instructions than ultramarathoners.” A person’s unique sighing needs depend on factors such as size, activity level and emotional state, Vlemincx notes. So rather than rigidly following a protocol, individuals should find out what feels best, knowing that the benefits of cyclic sighing improve over regular practice. Inspired by her studies, Vlemincx says she tries to be aware of when she is naturally sighing and exaggerate the reflex.
Investing in a couple of sighs isn’t enough on its own, according to Nestor. The key to healthy breathing, he says, is breathing healthy day and night. He practices slow nasal breathing as often as possible, including in his sleep, using a small piece of surgical tape to ensure he’s not slipping into mouth breathing. When sighing during stressful moments, such as standing in line at the airport, he inhales, holds his breath for 3 or 4 seconds, then takes another inhale and briefly holds before taking a relaxed exhale, repeating this pattern about three times. After some trial and error, he has come to find this sigh with an added breath hold to be powerful, specifically when followed by coherent breathing—gently breathing in for 5 to 6 seconds and then out for 5 to 6 seconds. Similarly, Gerbarg invites participants in her trainings to use two sighs—taking a deep inhale through the nose, followed by an audible “ahh” to exhale—before and after engaging in muscle relaxation exercise.
Beyond the specific psychological benefits of sighing, the larger message of the sigh is hopeful and relieving. Regardless of what’s challenging in this moment, we are wired to reset ourselves, and can count on our bodies to keep us both relaxed and grounded.
Dr. Taitz is a clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Stress Resets: How to Soothe Your Body and Mind in Minutes.”
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on June 30, 2023, and written by Jenny Taitz. Image courtesy of iStock.
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