The Science Behind Your Sigh of Relief
What research reveals about sighing and how you can harness your breath to feel good anytime
If you breathed a sigh of relief when you saw the Associated Press call the presidential race for Joe Biden on November 7, 2020, you weren’t alone. Sighs of relief were heard around the world. The New York Times reported that “Biden Victory Brings Sighs of Relief Overseas,” while The Guardian published an op-ed entitled “Catastrophe has been averted. Let us all breathe a big, long sigh of relief.”
Why Relief Feels So Damn Good
Different forms of relief — from pain, or from the fretful anticipation wrapped up in a political election — look quite…
So, what exactly is a sigh of relief?
Augmented breaths, or sighs, are a neurobiological phenomenon with physiological, psychological, and pathological implications. In simple terms, sighs consist of a normal breath followed by a second breath before your exhale.
Sighs are far more common than you might think. In fact, people sigh an average of 12 times per hour. Sighing may be so habitual because of the important role it plays in the human body. A 2014 study in Progress in Brain Research describes the three key functions of sighs: First, by filling the lungs so completely, sighing supports healthy lungs and alveoli. Second, sighing regulates arousal states, from fear to relaxation, for instance, or from sleep to wakefulness. Third, sighs reset and regulate respiration.
In simple terms, sighs consist of a normal breath followed by a second breath before your exhale.
If sighs are so salutary, it may be tempting to try to up your average. However, there’s reason to believe that artificially increasing your sigh rate may not be so helpful. One study in Physiology & Behavior found that while a spontaneous sigh induced a feeling of relief, an instructed sigh did not have the same benefit. Moreover, research on panic disorders suggests that increased sighing could actually elevate anxiety and even cause panic attacks.