"Take a deep breath." It’s a phrase we’ve all heard spoken (maybe even in our own heads!) when we’re in the midst of a stressful moment and trying to calm down…a reminder that relief is not only just seconds away, but simply a matter of controlling one of our body’s most natural processes: our breath.
And when it comes to stress relief, science shows that deep breathing — which focuses on a long, slow inhalation that repeats over and over again — does indeed lead to almost instant calm, triggering a cascade of feel-good effects in the body. Studies have shown that mere seconds of deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and blood stream, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing our heart rate, increasing endorphins — or the “feel good” chemicals that boosts our mood — and ultimately, telling our brains to relax. Study after study show that deep breathing can stave off stress.
But new research out of Stanford University shows that the reigning champ of stress-reduction may have a challenger in the form of the long, steady exhale — or what many of us refer to as sighing. We’ve all done it — most of us spontaneously and unconsciously — when we receive a frustrating or disappointing piece of news, or in a period of acute boredom. Sighing has been shown to help us shake those negative feelings, at least momentarily, and slow our respiratory rate — a common indicator of calm. And now, “cyclic sighing,” or sighing purposefully several times in a row, is bringing on even bigger benefits — in mere seconds.
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The new frontier of relaxation: sighing
Published earlier this year in the journal Cell Reports, the Stanford study showed that cyclic sighing not only improved subjects’ mood and slowed their breathing rate, but it also led to superior stress relief.
The study set out to determine whether a particular breathing technique could be as effective as mindfulness meditation — a type of meditation in which one focuses on being aware of what they’re sensing and feeling in the moment without judgment — in reducing stress and negative mood. The researchers divided more than 100 participants into four groups, assigning each a different five-minute breathing exercise to do each day for 28 days: cyclic sighing (which emphasizes the exhaling of breath), cyclic hyperventilation (which emphasizes the inhale), box breathing (which involves inhaling and exhaling at equal lengths), and mindfulness meditation (which involves the passive observation of our breath without any attempt to control it).
What the researchers found was partially expected: Every group experienced daily improvement in their mood and reductions in their anxiety and negative affect. But the cyclic sighing group demonstrated not only the biggest reduction in respiratory rate (a common indicator of relaxation), but also the biggest improvement in mood above every other group.
Why sighing soothes best
“People think taking a deep breath is the way to ease stress, but it turns out that exhaling slowly is a better way to calm yourself,” explains one of the study’s authors, David Spiegel, MD, a psychiatrist and Willson Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Why? As he explains, it all comes down to something called “respiratory sinus arrhythmias,” a normal alteration in cardiac rhythm generated during breathing that increases when we inhale.
“When you inhale, you increase your heart rate, and the monitor in the heart that monitors the amount of blood flow thinks there’s not enough blood circulating and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system — a network of nerves that increases when you’re stressed, in danger or physically active,” explains Dr. Spiegel. “But when you exhale, more blood returns to the heart, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that relaxes the body.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the other types of deep breathing are bad for you. “Breathing is a pathway into mind-body control,” Dr. Spiegel, who is also the director of the Center of Stress and Health and the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford School of Medicine explains. “Cyclic sighing can enhance people’s ability to control their bodies and offer you the chance to kick in that self-soothing parasympathetic nervous system when you want it, sending a specific signal for the body to soothe itself.”
How to practice cyclic sighing
So, is there a best way to sigh to bring on these soothing benefits? Dr. Spiegel says you can’t go wrong following this quick how-to: Inhale about halfway through your nose, hold your breath and then breathe in again, filling your lungs all the way. “The stop is to make sure you fill your lungs completely, which will give you plenty of air to fully and slowly exhale,” explains Dr. Spiegel, whose app, Reveri, includes a cyclic sighing tutorial and self-hypnosis sessions. “Then, exhale through your mouth, making sure that the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation. Most people see immediate relief from anxious feelings and stress practicing cyclic sighing about three times in a row.”
Other ways to breathe your way to calm
Though cyclic sighing is the latest breakthrough in the breathwork world, decades-long research shows that other breathing practices (including some that emphasize exhaling!) can bring on great benefits. Says Dana Santas, a professional mobility, breathing and mind-body coach to professional athletes, yoga breathing can help. “Pranayama, or yoga breathing, has been used for thousands of years to calm the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.” Here are three of her favorite exercises that bring on instant calm:
1. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing
“Just 90 seconds is enough to reduce your cortisol — or stress hormone — levels and lower your blood pressure to induce relaxation,” says Santas. To do, lie on your back with a pillow beneath your head and one under your knees. “It aligns your pelvis and rib cage so you can take fuller breaths,” Santas says. Place one palm on your mid-chest and one above your navel. As you inhale through your nose, imagine filling your lungs from the bottom to the top. Without pausing, exhale through your nose or mouth. Imagine the air leaving your lungs from the top to the bottom. Pause, then repeat for 90 seconds.
2. “Peace Pause” breathing
“Carbon dioxide — the air we exhale — is a natural sedative,” Santas says. “When you focus on extending your exhalations, like in this method, it slightly raises your body’s carbon dioxide levels, which has a calming effect. It’s one of my clients’ most loved breathing techniques.” To do, practice diaphragmatic breathing for 90 seconds. Then, instead of visualizing your lungs filling and emptying, focus on gradually lengthening and deepening your breathing. Inhale for 5 counts, exhale for 5 counts, then pause for 5 counts as you mentally spell out the word “peace.” Repeat for another 90 seconds.
3. Countdown breathing
“Counting your breaths backward is a quick and easy way to clear your mind,” Santas says. “By imagining each number in your mind’s eye and focusing your attention on it, you shut out distractions.” Begin by practicing diaphragmatic breathing for 90 seconds. Then instead of visualizing your lungs filling and emptying, focus on counting your breaths. Beginning at 20, count backward with each breath until you fall asleep. “If you reach one without falling asleep, or if you get distracted and lose count, start again at 30 or 40 and count backward,” Santas says. “It will gradually get easier.” Repeat as needed.