Learn about the psychology behind sighing and how we can use “cyclic sighing” techniques to relieve stress, anxiety, and fatigue.
Sighing is a common nonverbal behavior that can signal many things.
Sighing is a reflexive respiratory pattern that involves taking a deep breath, holding it briefly, and then exhaling audibly. It is a common behavior in humans and other mammals, and can be caused by a variety of emotional and physiological factors.
From a biological perspective, sighing serves an important function in regulating the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. When we take a deep breath, we increase the amount of oxygen in our lungs, which is then delivered to our cells through the bloodstream. At the same time, we expel carbon dioxide, which is a waste product of cellular metabolism.
However, there are also emotional and psychological factors that can lead to sighing.
For example, people may sigh when they are feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. Sighing can be a way of releasing tension and resetting the body’s nervous system. Some research has also suggested that sighing may play a role in regulating our emotional state by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming the body and reducing stress.
While sighing may seem like a simple and involuntary behavior, it actually serves a complex and important role in regulating both our physiological and emotional well-being.
Cyclic Sighing: Breathe Out the Bad
We can learn a lot about ourselves when we focus more on our breathing.
There is a great affirmation to remind yourself anytime you are feeling overwhelmed: “Breathe in the good, breathe out the bad.”
How often do you consciously step back and take a deep breath?
In one new study from Stanford Medicine, researchers discovered an easy, at-home way to help lower your stress level called “cyclic sighing,” a controlled breathing exercise that emphasizes long exhalations
According to Stanford neurobiologist Andrew Hubermann:
“Most of the time breathing is automatic, like digestion, heartbeat and other bodily functions, but you can very easily take over and control your breath, which then affects your overall physiology and stress response.”
First it’s important to pay attention to the bodily sensations behind stress and anxiety. When we start to feel overwhelmed, we often experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscles tightening, sweaty armpits, or fidgetiness.
These physical sensations can feed into an “anxiety spiral” if we don’t catch them soon enough, triggering a chain reaction of negative thoughts and emotions.
“As soon as you notice what’s going on in your body, your brain thinks, ‘Oh no, this must be really bad,’ and you get more anxious. It’s like a snowball rolling downhill.”
The sooner you can identify symptoms of anxiety, the sooner you can respond to them in a healthy and constructive way.
Taking charge of your breathing is one way to break the anxiety cycle.
It’s simple: breathe in through your nose until your lungs are completely full, hold for one or two seconds, and then slowly exhale through your mouth until all the air is gone.
The key to “cyclic sighing” is to emphasize your exhales.
To activate your parasympathetic nervous system, exhales should be longer than inhales, so try to breathe out as slowly as possible.
Make an audible “sigh” sound if you want (especially in private, when you’re not bothering anyone). Think of your exhales as an “anxiety exhaust” that releases any pent up stress or nervous energy.
Keep in mind that audible sighs around others can be considered annoying or rude, especially if you do it a lot, so it’s something to do be mindful of if you’re not alone.
If you want to have some fun with your sighs, consider adding a slur word to it. Research shows swearing can reduce stress, so why not accompany your sigh with a “Fuuuuuuu…” or a “Shiiiiii…” to give it that extra oomph.
Just one powerful sigh can have an instantly calming effect, but it’s often best to cycle through at least 10 breaths or more to fully ground yourself.
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