Don’t hold back on sighing—it’s the body’s built-in reset button

Sighing: it’s all good.
Sighing: it’s all good.
Image: REUTERS/Adrees Latif
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It’s right up there with loud phone talking, gum chewing, and knee-shaking. Loud, breathy sighs coming from a coworker can feel passive-aggressive and downright irritating. Sigh. But before jamming in your earbuds and thinking angry thoughts, you should know that sighs are keeping your coworker (and yourself) alive, in addition to effectively reducing physiological distress.

While sighs are often attributed to sadness, anger, frustration, and angst, research indicates that sighing is a natural part of pulmonary function. The average person sighs twelve times per hour, and without those sighs the air sacs inside of the lungs would cave, resulting in death. As dramatic as the anatomical explanation for sighing is, the act of heaving in and out can also be an effective coping mechanism.

A 2016 Belgian study from the University of Leuven found that physiological tension was reduced when study participants were instructed to take deep breaths after viewing disturbing images. Participants that were instructed to hold their breath in a deep yogic style did not find the same relief.

That relief is the result of a sudden change in respiratory patterns. At nearly two times the volume of a regular breath, a single sigh is a loud, disruptive, and practical way to push your body’s reset button. It’s nature’s built-in bullhorn.

So why do some people seem to sigh a lot more than others? People suffering from anxiety, trauma, or panic disorder may sigh more than the average in order to subconsciously change breathing patterns at a more rapid rate. This coping mechanism is also effective in a controlled situation.

If you find yourself feeling anxious, frustrated, or agitated, you can tap into your body’s own stress-relief mechanisms by focusing on your breath, breathing deeply, and exhaling fully. Since this breath is not part of your body’s regular breathing pattern, you will effectively access your stress-coping reserves, down-regulate your body, and be able to refocus both your mind and body. The result? Instant stress relief.

Even though your coworker’s sighs might be annoying, keep in mind that they are serving a dual purpose: to facilitate breathing and to reduce anxiety related to stressful situations. You still might need earplugs or headphones, but now you know why your coworker takes those deep breaths (and why you may want to too).

Leah Weiss, PhD, is the author of How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind.