Wellness

Sighing Is an Effective Breathwork Technique, according to Researchers

Written by: Denise John, PhD

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Published on: November 30, 2023

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Photo courtesy of Kyle Niego/Stills.com

Everybody sighs. It comes to us as naturally as normal breath—involuntarily triggered by feelings like frustration or anxiety or relief. And we often feel better on the other side.

Cyclic sighing is a breathing technique that harnesses the power of sighing to theoretically calm you in minutes. “It’s an opportunity to use more conscious control to regulate your psychophysiological state,” says David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and the lead scientist of a 2023 study on cyclic sighing.

Spiegel and his team of researchers compared the effects of mindfulness meditation with those of three breathing techniques: cyclic sighing, box breathing, and cyclic hyperventilation. The participants in the study were divided into groups, each performing meditation or a breathing practice for five minutes every day, and their heart and breathing patterns were monitored using wearable tracking devices.

After a month, they found that each practice was successful at reducing anxiety and improving mood. But the breathing techniques improved mood and reduced respiratory rate (the number of times we breathe each minute, which indicates how calm we are) more significantly than mindfulness meditation. Cyclic sighing stood above the rest: It improved mood and lowered respiratory rate more than the other practices did.

Spiegel says that cyclic sighing likely works because it puts emphasis on the conscious sigh or longer exhale. It ensures that you’re intentional with your inhale and exhale—the combination is key. “What it’s doing is slowing your respiratory rate and potentially lowering your heart rate due to its parasympathetic activation, rather than sympathetic,” Spiegel says. “It’s a rapid way that we have of soothing ourselves.”

To try cyclic sighing, follow these simple (powerful) steps:

  1. Get comfortable (seated or lying down).
  2. Slowly inhale through your nose as you fully expand your belly, then briefly stop.
  3. Continue inhaling by expanding your chest to fill your lungs completely.
  4. Slowly exhale through your mouth or nose.
  5. Repeat for five minutes.

The key takeaway here? Meditation and breathwork practices are probably going to help improve your mood and increase calmness, but cyclic sighing may have added benefits for some people. Either way, it’s a great tool to add to your mindfulness kit—Spiegel walked me through a quick session (available on the Reveri app, which he cofounded), and I felt a shift in just two minutes.

If you have another practice that works for you, of course, stick with it. According to Spiegel, it’s about consistently dedicating time for self-awareness. “If you just take a few minutes each day to self-regulate and build your capacity to utilize control over your mind and body, you will feel better,” he says.

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This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.