Have you ever felt the need to sigh after a stressful day or before doing something that made you nervous, like speaking in public or giving a presentation? Or maybe you find yourself sighing throughout the day as you tackle work projects or wrangle the kids. Whatever the reason, taking a moment to sigh involves exhaling fully, and, if you're alone (or simply don't care what folks around you think — yay for you!), perhaps a loud "Ahhhhhhh" accompanies that full exhale. Overall, if you've ever fully sighed, you know that it can feel pretty fantastic. Turns out that yummy sigh and feeling of release results in some major physiological and mental health benefits.
Yesterday was National Relaxation Day and there's good reason to dedicate a day to relaxing. In fact, after digging into the research, I'm personally thinking that relaxation should probably be built into every day! Relaxation techniques can help your body lower cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure, while relieving tension and improving concentration, memory, and mood. What's more, the relaxation techniques don't have to be complicated or take much time! A simple sigh can be all you need to transform your body into a relaxation state and better health.
Cortisol's Connection to Health
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced and released by your adrenal glands, the glands that sit on top of your kidneys. Cortisol can be helpful during times of acute stress, like the fight or flight scenario, and is important for regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, sleep and your body's response to stress. In acute moments of stress, cortisol can help to fight inflammation.
However, too much cortisol produced by chronic stress can be detrimental to health. Consistently high levels of cortisol can lead to inflammation, a weakened immune system, disrupted sleep, impaired metabolism, high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar. There are some conditions that increase cortisol levels like Cushing's syndrome, adrenal gland tumors, and taking steroidal medications. Chronic stress can also keep cortisol levels higher than normal. One way to manage chronic stress is to sigh or deeply exhale throughout the day. It takes little time and you can easily sigh while doing other tasks. Editor's warning (from experience): If you're unmuted on a Zoom call and let out a large loud sigh, it might be a little alarming to others on the call. Or, perhaps you'll inspire others to do the same and create a sea of sighs that benefits everyone!
How Sighing Affects Your Physical and Mental State
Your breathing is probably automatic most of the time, just like your digestion, beating heart and other functions that your body naturally does on its own, without thought. The moment you take over your breath and consciously breathe or let out a sigh, you start to affect your physiological and mental state. Your stress levels decrease, activating your parasympathetic nervous system and normalizing cortisol levels followed by stabilized blood sugar, lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rate, less anxiety, and an overall feeling of calmness. You may even notice a boosted mood and a clearer state of mind. This can lead to better focus and concentration. Better focus and concentration can lead to more happiness and peace, and perhaps greater connections with those around you. As you can see, sighing is more than just a sigh. It can affect many aspects of your day, increasing overall quality of life.
More and more studies show that conscious breathing can decrease anxiety, boost mood, lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and improve well-being. Neurobiologist, Andrew Huberman, and his colleagues have found that a certain type of breathing seems to be more effective than others. Called cyclic sighing, it is a controlled breathing exercise that emphasizes long exhalations — and it's easy to do!
Here are the steps:
Breathe in through your nose.
When you've comfortably filled your lungs, take a second, deeper sip of air to expand your lungs as much as possible. The first inhale is a deep, long inhale and is followed immediately by a second inhale that is very quick and short.
Then, very slowly, exhale through your mouth until all the air is gone.
The reason for the second inhale is to increase the surface area and fully expand the lungs, which allows more oxygen to pass from the lungs to the bloodstream, and more carbon dioxide to pass from the bloodstream into the lungs so you can breathe it out. Then you have a long exhale through the mouth until your lungs are empty.
Are You Ready to Try It?
This practice is so simple and can have an enormous impact on your health and your life. What's more, it's free and flexible (you can do it anytime!). Cycling sighing can be practiced whenever you're feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed. Know that it can help to regulate your cortisol levels, which will support your overall physical and mental well being. Feel free to do this throughout the day or anytime you feel the need during moments of stress. Notice what it does to your body. How does it make you feel physically? What does it do to your mindset? Do you feel more relaxed?
And please share below — what have you experienced through a deep sigh?