I’ve taken to sighing approximately, oh, 22,000 times a morning, and I’m worried that my co-workers thing I’m an uptight, bored, and rude. The meaning of sighing is, after all, murky at best and the connotations of it are mostly negative. Sure, you can sigh of relief when your college friend cancels those after-work dinner plans. Or you can sigh dreamily when you scroll past the most perfect trifecta of Harry Styles, Gucci, and piglets. But mostly sighing conjures that phase of your life when wearing liquid eyeliner was a moody personality trait. And I’m trying to escape my reputation as the token Goth Teenager in every room I inhabit. Is my sighing habit precluding me from such progress?
If you have similar anxieties, brace yourself for one of those big relief sighs: Sighing is actually a incredibly benign reflex that we all do pretty much constantly. On average, a person sighs every five minutes, which is about 12 times an hour. And while that may seems excessive, it actually may be a factor that’s keeping us alive. One study from UCLA and Stanford points to how the purpose of sighing is to inflate the alveoli, balloon-like sacs where oxygen enters and carbon dioxide leaves the bloodstream. Sometimes the alveoli collapses, so sighing is engaged to bring in double the oxygen to pop it back up again. Otherwise, your oxygen-to-carbon-dioxide process is compromised, and—not to get catastrophic—your lungs will fail.
That biological function aside, the actual meaning behind sighing is far less intense: It’s about maintaining your physical and mental health. That’s right, sighing is involuntary self care. “There are mental and physical components to sighing,” say telemedicine pioneer Tania Elliott, MD. “Physically, a sigh is similar to a deep exhalation, which helps to open up the small airways in the lung and can help improve oxygenation. Mentally, we often sigh out of frustration or boredom, which can often lead to tense muscles and airways. A sigh helps to relieve this.”
“Research says sighs express a mismatch between your emotions and ideals; it’s the recognition that something is wrong, but you need to let it go.” —psychologist Paulette Sherman, PsyD
In that sense, sighing is a really kind thing to do to our bodies when we’re holding in that tension. Think about how techniques like measured breathing can help bring us down during an anxiety attack or panic attack, which of course can include physical effects. Sighing uses a similar school of thought: The body and mind is under a lot of stress, and the sigh allows us to come down from it a little.
Psychologist Paulette Sherman, PsyD, agrees that sighing can act as a physical and emotional reset. “Emotionally, when we breathe more, we release tension and anxiety and can move into our healing nervous system, away from fight and flight.” She points to sighing being associated with emotions like sadness, frustration, anxiety, and how they’re regarded as the universal exercise of defeat and resignation. “People are 10 times more likely to sigh for negative reasons than for positive ones,” says Dr. Sherman. “Research says sighs express a mismatch between your emotions and ideals; it’s the recognition that something is wrong, but you need to let it go.”
So when we sigh emotionally, it’s often because something isn’t working out in our favor. And even though we can’t necessarily immediately regulate the chaos of our lives, we can regulate our breathing. Rather than look at it as something you did as an insolent, grumpy teen, take it as something you do to relax from the stresses of adult life. If only for a moment, you get to feel physical and psychological release from your troubles, before you tackle the enormous to-do list in front of you. The reflex is friend, not foe.
…At least that’s how I’m going to defend myself while I’m sighing approximately 22,000 times a day.
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