Using Sighs for Soothing
A purposeful sigh can aid stress relief.
Posted August 4, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Sighing is a reflex essential for human life.
- Sighing supports biological processes for stability and resetting arousal states.
- We need quick and effective forms of stress relief. An intentional sigh can be coping mechanism for invoking calm.
- Care for your psyche by soothing your stressful moments with a physiological sigh.
It’s 7:55 a.m. You’re running late for work, hoping for green lights through the next several intersections only to end up behind a city bus. Your heart is pounding, and you squeeze the steering wheel in frustration. Finally, resigned to your late fate, you sigh. But that sigh may have actually been soothing for your mental and physical being.
Whether it comes from frustration or relief, the sigh is an essential kind of breath that can be integrated into our overall well-being. Sighing is a form of belly breathing. In belly breaths, you fully expand your lungs, unlike typical shallower chest breathing. Because of sighs' ability to quickly calm your arousal response and redirect focus, certain types of sighs are common practices in athletic and competitive preparations designed to increase optimal performance.
Sighs serve a critical regulatory function for the whole body. “Sighs monitor changes in brain states, induce arousal, and reset breathing variability,” researcher Jan-Marino Ramirez writes in a 2014 research paper. In fact, physiological sighing is a reflex that is considered essential for human life. For patients in critical care, mechanical respiration tools are programmed to sigh at a variable rate rather than an interval, consistent pace.
What Is a Sigh?
A sigh is the intake of two inhales and one exaggerated exhale. This full breath works powerfully throughout our biological systems.
The typical sigh is signaled from a cluster of several thousand neurons contained in the brain stem (Li & Yackle, 2017). The surge of oxygen through the two short inhales fills the tiny sacs, alveoli, in the lungs. The expansion facilitates oxygen surging into the bloodstream and releases the unneeded carbon dioxide. With the longer exhale, more carbon dioxide than a typical exhale is released, producing desirable feelings of relaxation. Sighing activates the parasympathetic nervous system’s biological cues for calm.
Our brain stem is already involuntarily controlling this function. But it is also possible, and necessary, for you to intentionally practice it. In fact, a purposeful sigh can provide relief and soothing. Indeed, the physiological sigh may be among the most effective, time-efficient stress management skills you can practice when stressed.
How to Intentionally Sigh
When intentionally practicing the physiological sigh:
- Inhale once through your nose followed by another rapid inhale (two inhales).
- Exhale fully through your mouth, fully extending your exhale (one exhale).
- Complete 2-3 times.
- After your last round, consider possibly adding a short meditation
In the mornings on my way to work, I often notice a tightening in my shoulders and tension in my jaw as I mentally rehearse the day's tasks. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all that needs to be accomplished. Yet by practicing the physiological sigh during my more stressed states, I experience enhanced calmness and present awareness.
Identify your body’s signs for your own emotional regulation. Muscle tension, early stages of a headache, clenching of the jaw or hands, and stomach pain are potential body stress signals. While sighs occur largely below our conscious attention, deliberately practicing a physiological sigh can be a mindful tool for your self-care.
Hubberman, Andrew (2021). Reduce Anxiety & Stress with the Physiological Sigh | Huberman Lab Quantal Clip - YouTube-444-63274-6.00006-0. PMID: 24746045; PMCID: PMC4427060.
Li, P., & Yackle, K. (2017). Sighing. Current Biology, 27(3), R88-R89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.09.006
Ramirez JM. (2014). The integrative role of the sigh in psychology, physiology, pathology, and neurobiology. Prog Brain Res. 2014;209:91-129. doi: 10.1016/B978-0