January 15, 2023/Brain & Nervous System

Why Do We Sigh and What Does It Mean?

What this natural breathing response may be telling you

A person holding their head.

You may associate a sigh with a lot of things. Stress. Relief. Even a sense of frustration or awe.

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However you think of sighing, you may wonder why we do it, and whether it can be bad for you or if it’s possible to sigh too much. Sighing, we’ll learn, is natural and normal. And while the act of sighing doesn’t pose any immediate threat on its own, there are situations where it may be a sign of something else.

Biofeedback specialist and psychologist Anna Hayburn, PsyD, explains what we know about this form of exhaling.

What is a sigh?

First of all, what even is a sigh? A cousin to the cough? An uncle to a gasp?

A sigh is considered a reflex and is mainly defined as a long, deep breath that’s similar to a normal inhale and exhale — but not quite the same. It can happen due to an emotional response like stress or relief, but you can also sigh without even noticing it. In fact, on average, people produce about 12 “spontaneous sighs” within an hour.

Usually, a sigh involves breathing in a second inhale before letting the exhale (sigh) out. Often, there’s a pause in breathing that follows — known sometimes as post-sigh apnea.

As it turns out, a sigh also plays an important role in your respiratory system. When you’re breathing normally, tiny air sacs (also known as alveoli) are hard at work exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. Sometimes, these air sacs collapse and a sigh can help reset them. As sighing is basically a long inhale, it can actually give your lungs a much-needed air boost at times and improve your blood oxygen levels.

In other words, a sigh here and there can help make your breathing more balanced, as well as let off some emotional steam.

Why do we sigh?

Unsurprisingly, sighing is often associated with our feelings.

For example: Have you ever let out a sigh and felt better? Sighing can be an efficient anxiety reducer at times. Some experts hypothesize that people in anxiety-provoking situations may sigh in order to gain temporary relief from distress.

A study in 2022 found that sighing was connected to emotional responses like arousal, anxiety and pain.

“Negative emotional states — such as fear, anxiety and sadness — are in fact associated with sighing more often,” notes Dr. Hayburn. Studies from 2010 and 2015 confirm this as well.

You may be prone to sighing more than usual if you have conditions like:

Is sighing healthy?

For the most part, sighing can be a good thing.

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But while sighing is usually your body’s way of letting off some emotional weight, excessive sighing could become a burden to your system. Remember how we mentioned before that there’s a pause in breathing that goes with a sigh? That’s the part that can get worrisome over time.

“When frequent sighing continues over a long time — either because of prolonged stress or an anxiety disorder — it can actually worsen anxiety, stress and panic,” explains Dr. Hayburn. “That’s because it can promote hyperventilation and an increased stress response.”

In other words, if you’re sighing a lot and not making it up with deep breaths and measured breathing, it can be a sign of either mental-related stress or, in some cases, an underlying respiratory issue.

You should see your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms along with frequent sighing:

How to improve your breathing

If you’ve noticed that you sigh too often, it may be a sign that you’re not breathing deeply enough. This is totally understandable, as stress and anxiety can often lead to uneven breathing.

To counteract this and help get your breathing (and sighing) in check, you can practice better breathing exercises.

“If you find yourself chronically anxious, stressed or panicking, it’s worthwhile asking your doctor about breathing retraining,” advises Dr. Hayburn. “This is a useful intervention for both body and mind, and can be done in several kinds of settings such as with a speech therapist or biofeedback with a psychologist.”

If you’re looking to also improve your breathing at home, you can try breathing exercises like:

The key is also knowing when your sigh is stress-induced or not. Not all sighs are created equal.

“Sighs can be positive, too. Remember that we can sigh to express relief,” Dr. Hayburn says. “Sighing can signal those around you that you’re feeling safe and content.”

Sighing does serve a purpose for your respiratory system and even your emotional response. So, you shouldn’t be concerned if you’re letting out a sigh now and again to express different feelings. Just be sure to pay attention if you’re feeling any other breathing-related issues that affect your day-to-day functioning. If so, take a deep breath and reach out to a healthcare provider.

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