Healthy Body

Feel Like You’re Sighing All the Time? Here’s Why a Psychologist Says That Might Be Happening

Photo: Stocksy/ Ana Luz Crespi
As far as nonverbal communication goes, sighing can tell you a lot about how someone is feeling. But, if you sigh a lot without really meaning to—you probably know how weird it can get to have to explain that you're not actually dissatisfied at that moment, and you're definitely not trying to send a passive-aggressive message with a weighted, audible exhale.

If you do feel like you let out sighs more than those around you, you're not imagining it. Some people are just more prone to it—often for reasons you wouldn't guess.

Why do people sigh in the first place?

Sighing is a long, audible exhalation that typically occurs due to psychological or physiological distress or discomfort, according to a 2016 study from the journal Nature. Though sighs can sometimes indicate emotional distress, frustration, and disappointment—it can also be as simple as your lungs needing to reinflate the alveoli. The millions of alveoli in your lungs are where the blood exchanges carbon dioxide (C02) for oxygen to facilitate breathing. A sigh can allow more C02 to leave the body in one breath, making room for a deeper inhalation afterward.

It's actually a vital lung function—the average human sighs around 12 times an hour—and the inability to sigh can potentially lead to lung failure, according to UCLA Health.

"People can sigh rather often, but it's usually spontaneous and is often not problematic. Most of the time, sighing is connected to someone's mood or respiratory health," says Michele Goldman, PsyD, psychologist, and Hope for Depression Research Foundation advisor. "Therefore, sighing is not a bad thing and can play an important role in lung function, as it can reinflate collapsed alveoli."

What are the physiological reasons you might sigh a lot?

At its core, sighing is a way to get carbon dioxide out of the body, and the right amount of oxygen into the body. That's why you might hear people with certain respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sighing deeply. Since sighing can help release more CO2 and draw more oxygen into the lungs, it's a way for your body to try to overcome airway constriction, and lack of oxygen, when you have a respiratory disease.

However, folks without medical conditions also sigh, says Dr. Goldman. If you are experiencing shortness of breath, hyperventilating, or having feelings that you cannot take in a deep breath (with or without pain), it might be worth consulting with a doctor, she adds.

What are the psychological reasons you might sigh a lot?

"Sighing can be your body's way of communicating an emotional state to yourself or those around you. It can mean we are feeling anxiety or stress, perhaps sadness or exhaustion," says Dr. Goldman. "Of course, it might also mean that we are experiencing relief. We most commonly hear people say, 'you can breathe a sigh of relief.'"

Some view sighing as the body's way of trying to release emotions, while others see it as a way of communicating how you're feeling. When it comes to why people sigh more when they're stressed or anxious—it's complicated, but it may give the 'sigher' temporary relief from distress, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Another possible explanation for frequent, loud sighs? Having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which can cause symptoms like trouble paying attention, squirming, or fidgeting, and acting on impulse. "It is possible that individuals with undiagnosed ADHD who are struggling with their symptoms might be more easily frustrated, stressed, or anxious, thus leading to what seems to be an increase in sighing," says Dr. Goldman. It is also possible that people with ADHD may sigh more frequently because their focus (or lack thereof) makes it difficult to take full, deep breaths. After a while, the body needs to release more C02 than a typical exhale, triggering a sigh.

Even so, Dr. Goldman says there is no science that suggests people with ADHD sigh more or less frequently than those without a diagnosis. For now, these are just theories.

How do you stop sighing so much all the time?

Sighing and breathing, as a whole, is a vastly complex system controlled by many parts of the brain, according to a 2014 study from the journal Progress in Brain Research, and can fulfill both the physiological needs of the lungs and the emotional needs of the brain. That said, if you think your sighing has reached new heights, it's worth talking to a provider about what the source of this extra exhalation is, says Dr. Goldman. They will check for signs of a medical condition, or rule them out if that doesn't seem to be the issue.

In the meantime, there are a few things you can try to bring your sighing down to a minimum (but keep in mind there is no one right way to do this):

  • Keep a journal of how you're feeling and mindfully check in with your body when you find yourself sighing.
  • Ask loved ones that spend a lot of time with you to give you feedback about how much you are sighing. (In a positive way, of course.)
  • Communicate to friends, family, and coworkers that your sighing is not your way of expressing passive-aggressive emotions.

Finally, if your sighing seems to be related to stress or anxiety, you might consider taking up deep breathing practices or meditation to develop better breathing habits, says Dr. Goldman. This could potentially reign in out-of-control sighing, but you may also find that these tools will help you manage difficult emotions for years to come.

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