Sighing to Calm Anxiety

If you're having a bad day, give a big sigh. This simple exercise acts as a psychophysiological resetter, capable of restoring both physiological and psychological homeostasis.
Sighing to Calm Anxiety
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Sighing is an act that poets attribute to lovers. However, in reality, you not only sigh when you’re dreaming of someone you love. In fact, this pattern of breathing is closely linked to your emotions, but it also helps your body to free us from the weight of tension and stress.

A sigh, which is usually always audible, short, and precedes a deeper inhalation of air, is a mechanism of homeostasis. It balances us. It relieves us. It comforts us and even seems to free us from certain burdens. In addition, this physiological response often acts as a communication mechanism.

For example, you probably remember your mother sighing deeply when you’d done something naughty before she reprimanded you. In fact, when you hear someone sighing, you almost always ask them what’s wrong.

That’s because you know that their sigh is responding to some emotional state that may need validation and support.

Both people and animals sigh, and we do so because of an intense emotional state.

man trying to sigh
Emotions like anxiety can make us sigh much more.

Sighing, a physiological reboot at your fingertips

Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University (USA), claims that sighing is the quiet art of reducing stress and anxiety. When we deal with these emotional states, this breathing pattern already appears automatically, both in us and in animals.

However, we don’t do it properly. Indeed, although sighing generates some relief, it doesn’t always provide a permanent benefit. That’s because we breathe so quickly. In fact, stress causes a large part of our pulmonary alveoli to collapse with air due to the high frequency of our heart. We breathe quickly and the CO₂ level rises. All this leads to fatigue and discomfort.

If you want to benefit from a sigh, it must be a fully conscious act. A slow, deep breath has a restorative effect on the body. It’s beneficial because it manages to renew oxygen, eliminate waste carbon dioxide, and raise the rate of endorphins. You experience a pleasant sensation of well-being that’s more sustained over time.

Deep breaths, those of which we have full control and take consciously, bring us great psychological relief.

The benefits of deep exhalation for anxiety

In 2016, the University of Leuven (Belgium) conducted a study that found that deep sighing reduced the level of anxiety in people who suffered from this problem. However, the discovery of this health benefit isn’t new.

In fact, there are documents that speak of how, in 1930, a technique called a ‘physiological sigh’ was identified. We know that our bodies make small sighs throughout the day unconsciously. We do it to regulate and optimize the function of our lungs. However, when dealing with stress and anxiety, those sighs become more frequent but shorter and breathier.

The physiological sigh consists of a deep and voluntary breath with which we exhale in a sustained manner for between six to eight seconds. The receptors of the heart detect this movement in the diaphragm and send messages to the brain to reduce the heart rate. Soon, we start to feel pleasantly relaxed.

Take a deep breath 3 times a day

Emotional states of negative valence such as fear, anxiety, anguish, and even sadness, cause you to sigh much more. Therefore, raising the number of your daily sighs, far from making you feel good, raises your feelings of alertness. As a matter of fact, in many cases, it can trigger hyperventilation.

As far as possible, you should try and regulate and control the number of times you sigh. Learning to breathe when you go through difficult times will be beneficial and cathartic. Furthermore, sighing deeply and consciously three to four times a day will also be useful.

This is the technique you should use.

  • Breathe in through your nose steadily for three to four seconds. You must ensure that the air fills your abdomen.
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  • Exhale loudly (remember, when you sigh, you always make a sound) for at least eight seconds.
  • Repeat twice.
Woman talking to her friend about the benefits of sighing
Sighing while we communicate is also a form of emotional release.

Sighing as a mechanism of emotional communication

Sighing is also a resource for emotional communication. For instance, when you hear someone sigh, you know that there’s something bothering them. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that, while we all sigh for emotions of negative valence, we also do so for positive reasons. Indeed, feelings of excitement and love can also activate this physiological resetter.

Nevertheless, when someone next to you sighs, you usually ask them why. In a way, a sigh is a wake-up call in a social context that has the purpose of conferring support to each other. We shouldn’t neglect it. It’s good to ask them what’s worrying them or making them anxious.

Because, although sighing provides adequate homeostasis to the body, talking about what hurts, tends to heal and repair much more. Therefore, next time you hear someone sighing, make sure you pay attention to this typically human mechanism.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Finesinger, J. E. (1944). The effect of pleasant and unpleasant ideas on the respiratory pattern (spirogram) in psychoneurotic patients. American Journal of Psychiatry100, 659-667.
  • Ramirez JM. The integrative role of the sigh in psychology, physiology, pathology, and neurobiology. Prog Brain Res. 2014;209:91-129. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63274-6.00006-0. PMID: 24746045; PMCID: PMC4427060.
  • Vlemincx, Elke & Diest, Ilse & Van den Bergh, Omer. (2016). A sigh of relief or a sigh to relieve: The psychological and physiological relief effect of deep breaths. Physiology & Behavior. 165. 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.07.004.
  • Vlemincx, E., Taelman, J., De Peuter, S., Van Diest, I., & Van Den Bergh, O. (2011). Sigh rate and respiratory variability during mental load and sustained attention. Psychophysiology48, 117-120

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.