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Breathing Stress Away: The Power of the Physiological Sigh

I love it when I'm taking a really hard power yoga class when the instructor interjects themself to say, "Are you breathing?" Because I feel seen, or rather caught red-handed doing just the opposite which is of course holding my breath. Holding one's breath or breathing in a shallow manner when doing something challenging or during moments of stress appears to be a universal response. Ask anyone. Yoga instructors seem to know this. Why do we do this? It might be part of the nervous system's "fight or flight" response to a perceived difficulty or threat as we quickly calculate if it would be wiser to launch ourselves in full fight mode towards the "tiger" or run for our lives. Our muscles tense up to prepare for action and perhaps that includes the muscles of respiration. Our attention become intensely focused on the object of threat and not on ourselves. We are in a momentary freeze mode. Holding our breath may also be a natural way in these cases of activating the diving reflex which slows down the heart rate and redirects blood flow to the vital organs. Of course, we are depriving ourselves of vital oxygen and increasing carbon dioxide.

All that is to say that since the opposite of holding our breaths is breathing, it makes sense then that breathing deeply can trigger a relaxation response. There's one breathing method that is particularly simple and quick to do which has helped me tremendously during moments of duress when for example an impending deadline felt like a pouncing tiger. It is what has been dubbed the physiological sigh. Research has consistently demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing stress and improving mood.

The physiological sigh is a deep and involuntary breath that consists of a double inhalation followed by a longer exhalation. This unique pattern activates a complex interplay of physiological processes that help the body relax and reduce stress. It delivers oxygen to the bloodstream, interrupts the pattern of rapid shallow breathing that often accompany stress, and engages the parasympathetic nervous system triggering a relaxation response. This helps lower the heart rate and blood pressure and reduces muscle tension. Sounds good, right? Let's get started on the how:

  1. Relax Your Body: Close your eyes if it feels better for you, release any tension in your muscles, and adopt a comfortable posture.

  2. Inhale Twice: Inhale slowly and fully through your nose letting your abdomen and your chest expand 360 degrees, and then at the end, inhale quickly through your nose a second time.

  3. Exhale Slowly: Following the two inhales, exhale slowly and completely through your mouth. Focus on emptying your lungs entirely.

  4. Repeat: You may only need to do this once, and if needed you can perform the physiological sigh three to five times to experience a sense of increased calm.

That's it. I hope this helps you as much as it has helped me. The physiological sigh has become an essential part of my armamentarium against the slings and arrows of modern existence. Whenever I feel stress creeping in or am in need of a moment of tranquility, I turn to this simple yet potent technique. It has helped me regain equanimity and approach challenging situations with a clear mind. Give it a try. Take a moment to breath deeply and sigh it all out.



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