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The Link Between Sighing and Stress

Sep 21, 2022

What's in a sigh? For most people, the mere thought of a sigh evokes a picture of our breath shaking off the weight of the world while we're processing a stressful situation. While all of us know what it's like to sigh, few ever stop to wonder why we sigh. It turns out that our brains may be instinctually providing us with a mechanism to calm down naturally when in a heightened state.

By tapping into the sighing response, we can take control of stress using nothing more than controlled breaths. First, we must know the anatomy of a sigh to understand how our bodies are attempting to calm down. As you may already know, all breathing patterns play crucial roles in allowing the body to maintain homeostasis. While our breathing patterns may vary based on the activities or circumstances we're engaged in, the goal of our breath is always to rake in fresh oxygen while cycling out carbon-dioxide waste. When our breathing goes haywire, every aspect of psychological well-being becomes compromised. Take a look at how knowing how to embrace "the sigh" may be a shortcut to moving away from a psychological stress storm.

 
 
 

This Is Your Body on Stress

Our response to stress is not purely emotional. This is why simply relying on the notion of "self-control" is so dangerous when trying to cope with stress, anxiety or fears. The fear response is a psychological response. While the cascade that occurs in our bodies when we anticipate danger may have helped our ancestors to dodge saber-toothed tigers, it's actually very dangerous for our health and well-being to linger in this state. When we experience stress, our brain activates a storm of chemical reactions that flood our bodies with acetylcholine, epinephrine and many more stress-response chemicals that send us into an escalated, anxious state. We feel our breathing change. We experience the sound of our hearts thumping with the echo of a rapid drumbeat from inside our chests. As our pupils dilate, we may experience reality at a pace that seems sped up. We don't even have a chance to "calm down" because all of these responses are happening subconsciously within milliseconds of encountering a trigger.

While our ancestors were on the lookout for tigers, we're in a constant state of alertness because a "threat" could pop up from the tall grass in the form of a work email from a boss, an unwelcome text alert or a scary news headline. When a well-meaning person tells us to calm down, they are ignoring thousands of years of biological realities that have primed our brains and bodies to jump right into the flight-or-fight mode for survival. To get relief according to our physiological nature, we need a physiological tool. The easiest one to reach for is the sigh.

 

The Physiological Sigh

Researchers have identified a breathing pattern called the physiological sigh that happens in response to stress. They also think they know why we do it. During a physiological sigh, we follow a pattern of two inhales through the nose followed by an extended exhale out of the mouth. The apparent reason for why we do this is because our brains have received the signal that oxygen levels in the bloodstream are decreasing while carbon dioxide levels are increasing. The importance of the "double inhale" that occurs during a physiological sigh is that it opens the air sacks in our lungs that have collapsed due to stress-response breathing patterns. As a result, we're able to dump carbon dioxide more efficiently during our exhale. Most fascinating of all is that our brains actually override our own conscious actions to activate the neurons around the back of the neck to provoke a relaxation-inducing sigh.

 

The good news for anyone looking to combat stress "in the moment" is that you don't have to wait for your brain to nudge you to balance your oxygen and carbon dioxide. We can use physiological sighs at any time to reduce stress in the moment! The benefits of learning this technique are twofold. The first is that you can call upon the physiological sigh whenever you sense that a trigger has activated the stress response. What's more, simply knowing that you have the ability to activate your body's own natural "calm down" response right in the thick of a chaotic, stressful situation can provide a sense of control that enables you to take on challenges.

Won't the body go back to its normal state once a threat has passed? It's a common question people have because they assume that our stress response will reverse once the immediate threat that triggered it is gone. However, it's not quite that simple. First, many of the things that cause us stress are "chronic" issues that range from our jobs to world events. Secondly, people who experience chronic anxiety don't actually have the checks and balances in place to "return to normal." This is where we see permanently disrupted breathing. Over time, disrupted breathing can lead to some very serious health issues.

Sighs of Serenity: How Doing the Work of Breathwork Is Helping People Fight Stress

As many people are discovering, breathwork is one of the most effective science-backed tools for combating stress and anxiety entirely naturally. In studies, results show deep breath is capable of relieving anxiety while reducing physiological tension. In fact, researchers refer to sighs as "physiological resetters" based on the way they enable us to achieve homeostasis.

Are you intrigued by the idea of learning how to perform intentional sighing to relieve stress and tension? This may be one of the most powerful tools to have in your toolkit when stress strikes.

 
References:
 

https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2020/10/07/how-stress-affects-your-brain-and-how-to-reverse-it/


https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27404329/


https://calmcuban.com/science-breathing-exercise-calm-down-quickly/


https://www.anxiety.org/sighs-sighing-help-regulate-emotional-and-physical-states

 

 

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