Did you know that we sigh, without realising it, once every 5 minutes? That’s 12 sighs an hour - crazy!
There is a mechanical reason for this: it turns out that our normal everyday breathing requires 500 million little air sacs in your lungs (called alveoli) to be open, since that’s where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place (we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide).
If you are reading this, you will want to know right now how to use sighing to reduce anxiety and stress especially as you START to feel this way - so that it stops there and doesn't grow into a full-blown stress response or panic attack.
So what I'm going to do is describe the breathing technique known as the PHYSIOLOGICAL SIGH, so that you can get practising straight away! Then, if you are interested, scroll down and I'll go into why it works and what is happening in the body.
HOW TO DO THE PHYSIOLOGICAL SIGH 1. While you are still, inhale through the nose, while allowing the belly to grow (rather than sucking your belly in). Make this inhale as big as you can. 2. At the top of the inhale when you think you can't inhale again, do just that - inhale again! Even if it is a big sniff in … whatever you can give! It should feel like an effort and you'll get the sensation that you have completely filled your torso, front, back and sides! 3. Pause a second at the top of that 2nd inhale then exhale, like a sigh, out through the mouth, getting rid of every last bit of air, this time shrinking the belly in towards your spin. This exhale needs to be SLOW so that the time it take you to exhale is much LONGER than the combined double-inhale time (preferably twice as long). 4. Just once will make you feel calmer, but try and repeat it 2-3 times and up to 5 minutes for best results. 5. You can use this when you are very stressed or in the land of a panic attack - it will help - but it is more useful right at the emergence of those agitated feelings to help avoid that full-blown stress response/panic attack and basically stop it in its tracks. 6. It is also great to just do this through the day when you aren't feeling stressed and anxious - just to get your heart rate down and reduce chronic background stress or anxiety you may not be aware of (and often we are so 'used' to stress and anxiety, we don't even know we are in that state, especially at low levels).
WHY DOES THE PHYSIOLOGICAL SIGH WORK? Over time, it turns out some of the 500 million air sacs in the lungs collapse, which, if left unchecked, would eventually negatively affect lung function. BUT by sighing, the alveoli are “popped” open and normal breathing continues. This is why we sigh so often throughout the day, without realising it. Who'd have thought? This physiological sighing includes the moments before we are about to fall asleep, during deep sleep, when we are frustrated and when we cry (think of the toddler that inhales twice and then sighs but also the dog that does a double inhale and an exhale just before sleep). Sighing is essential for lung function and without it our lungs would fail. This was highlighted by the trouble people had in early iron lungs because they were not designed to sigh.
When we feel stress or anxiety from reacting to any real or perceived harmful situations - an interview, a race, an upcoming deadline, something new or different, a difficult conversation, flying, a looming storm, a change of plan, spiders, a person who makes us feel uncomfortable - we all feel sensations in our body in an almost identical way. What is happening is the stress and anxiety we feel contributes even more to those 500 million balloon-like air sacs in the lungs to collapse due to our increased breathing rate and shallow inhales (think of how shallowly we breathe when we are anxious). This leads to an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which in turn creates that agitated feeling we all feel.
As I mentioned above, the physiological sigh – this time, deliberate and conscious - reinflates the air sacs by 'popping' them open, which in turns increases the oxygen we can breathe in and helps us to exhale more carbon dioxide, reducing or getting rid of the agitation while also balancing the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This response in our body to physiological sighing is very quick, hence why it helps us regain control quickly from feelings of stress and anxiety.
The physiological sigh was discovered in the 1930s, but has only been recently ‘rediscovered’ by Jack Feldman and others at Stanford, in terms of its effect on stress/anxiety management. I listened to Dr Andrew Huberman's (professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University) recent podcast episode "How to Breathe Correctly for Optimal Health, Mood, Learning & Performance" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4m_PdFbu-s&t=5636s, where I found this information on how to hack into the stress response through this understated art of sighing. Check out the episode - it is literally a treasure trove of information on breathing and he also demonstrates the technique if you need to see it.
I have advocated many breathing techniques over the years with all my clients - whether they are endurance athletes wanting to curb pre-race nerves and anxiety, life coaching clients who want to improve their anxiety levels and reduce the effect of known triggers of anxiety and also health coaching clients who are often chronically stressed and need to find a way to manage this load. I also use Prānāyāma (Yoga practice of focusing on breathing) in my yoga classes and also share those with all my clients.
Generally the ones I used all favour longer exhales than inhales, because in today’s society, we all seem to need to calm down, reduce our heart rate and blood pressure! They are all effective techniques but Dr Huberman talks about a trial in his lab which compared the physiological sigh with other known exhale-focused breathing techniques to manage stress. This showed that the physiological sigh was superior to these other techniques for anxiety and stress. If you're interested in the paper, it is listed in the show-notes of this podcast episode.
The best thing about this method is that it uses the body to control the mind, rather than trying to use the mind to control the mind. The latter is significantly harder to do and takes training and practice. Mindfulness, Yoga and exercise are popular examples of this. But life happens and we can’t always perform a downward facing dog or run a 5k just before a presentation or an interview (although the jury could be out on that one!), or when we hear thunder rumble or the rain. This is a super useful tool you can use in REAL TIME and is effective in reducing unwanted symptoms of stress and anxiety. I am beyond excited to have found this - give it a go!