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An Instant Stress-Reliever: The Sigh

cyclic sighing dr. andrew huberman dr. david spiegel sighing Jun 25, 2023
sighing to release stress

In the pursuit of stress relief, we often turn to deep breathing techniques that provide a sense of instant calm by increasing oxygen supply to the brain and bloodstream. These techniques stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, slow down the heart rate, and release mood-boosting endorphins. Scientific studies have consistently shown that deep breathing effectively combats stress.

However, recent research conducted at Stanford University suggests that the reigning champion of stress reduction, deep inhalation, may have a contender: the long, steady exhale, better known as sighing. Whether it occurs spontaneously or unconsciously, sighing has been found to help us temporarily shake off negative emotions and slow down our breathing, a clear indicator of calmness. Surprisingly, a new approach called "cyclic sighing," involving purposeful consecutive sighs, has shown even more substantial benefits in just a matter of seconds.


An Emerging Frontier of Relaxation: The Sigh

A groundbreaking study published in Cell Reports earlier this year explored the effectiveness of cyclic sighing in comparison to mindfulness meditation—a practice focused on non-judgmental awareness of sensory and emotional experiences—in reducing stress and negative mood. Over 100 participants were divided into four groups, each assigned a different five-minute breathing exercise to perform daily for 28 days: cyclic sighing (emphasizing exhaling), cyclic hyperventilation (emphasizing inhaling), box breathing (equal-length inhale and exhale), and mindfulness meditation (passive observation of breath).

While all groups experienced daily mood improvement and reduced anxiety and negative affect, the cyclic sighing group demonstrated the most significant reduction in respiratory rate, a key marker of relaxation, as well as the most substantial improvement in mood compared to the other groups.


Unveiling the Soothing Power of Sighing

According to Dr. David Spiegel, one of the study's authors and a psychiatrist at Stanford University, sighing provides superior stress relief due to a phenomenon called "respiratory sinus arrhythmia." This normal variation in heart rhythm occurs during breathing and intensifies with inhalation. Dr. Spiegel explains that inhaling increases heart rate, activating the sympathetic nervous system associated with stress, danger, or physical exertion. On the other hand, exhaling allows more blood to flow back into the heart, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation.

It's important to note that other deep breathing techniques are not rendered ineffective by sighing's prominence. Dr. Spiegel emphasizes that breathing serves as a gateway to mind-body control. Cyclic sighing enhances our ability to regulate our bodies and activate the self-soothing parasympathetic nervous system, enabling us to initiate the body's natural calming response whenever desired.


Mastering the Art of Cyclic Sighing

To reap the soothing benefits of cyclic sighing, Dr. Spiegel recommends a simple technique: Inhale halfway through the nose, hold your breath momentarily, and then take another deep breath to fill your lungs completely. The pause ensures that your lungs are adequately filled, providing ample air for a slow and complete exhale through the mouth. The exhalation should be twice as long as the inhalation. Practicing cyclic sighing three times in succession often brings immediate relief from anxiety and stress. Dr. Spiegel's app, Reveri, includes a cyclic sighing tutorial and self-hypnosis sessions for those seeking guidance.


Expanding on the Theme:

In today's fast-paced and demanding world, stress has become a constant companion for many. The ability to manage stress effectively is crucial for maintaining our overall well-being. While there are countless techniques and strategies available, understanding the power of the breath offers a simple and accessible path to tranquility.

Deep breathing practices have long been revered for their ability to induce relaxation. However, the emerging research on cyclic sighing shines a light on an overlooked aspect of respiration. By embracing the deliberate act of sighing, we can tap into a profound stress-relieving mechanism that brings about both physical and emotional relief. The innate connection between our breath and our state of mind reminds us of the intricate interplay between our body and our emotions.

In a world that often emphasizes action and movement, the art of sighing invites us to pause, reflect, and release. It encourages us to acknowledge and process our negative emotions, offering a moment of respite amidst life's challenges. By incorporating cyclic sighing into our daily routines, we empower ourselves with a simple yet effective tool to counteract stress and find solace in the present moment. Let us embrace the power of the sigh and discover the profound calmness that lies within us.

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