Sighing: What it Means and Its Surprising Benefits

Sigh…We all do it. It’s a natural reflex, often associated with feelings of disappointment, frustration, or even boredom. But what if I told you that sighing could have some surprising benefits? Read on to learn all about this and more.

What is a sigh?

By ‘sigh’, I don’t mean that under-my-breath thing that happens spontaneously when my husband says something ridiculous – I mean the physiologic sigh. The sigh is a deep, augmented breath with distinct neurobiological, physiological, and psychological properties. Our bodies do this unconsciously every few minutes, before we fall asleep, during sleep, and even when we cry.

What are the benefits of sighing?

Recent research suggests that this often-dismissed breath is more than just a way to express our emotions. Sighing might be our body’s way of resetting itself, both physically and mentally.

Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t hold back the sighs:

Better Breathing

Sighs have important ventilatory functions as they lead to a maximal expansion of the lungs, which prevents the progressive collapse of alveoli (little air sacs in our lungs), helping to maintain lung function. This is especially important for maintaining good blood oxygen levels.

Stress Relief 

Physiologically, this breathing technique works by giving the lungs more space and reinflating the sacks in our lungs. The longer exhale rapidly offloads excess carbon dioxide, providing an immediate sense of increased calm.

Sighing activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, promoting relaxation and lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones. Sighing also increases vagal tone, which essentially reflects the activity level of the PNS. A higher vagal tone indicates a more relaxed and balanced state.

Simply, when we sigh, our heart rate declines, and oxygen levels go up contributing to a greater sense of calmness.

Increased Alertness

Contrary to the image of the tired sigh, some research suggests that sighing can actually boost alertness and focus indirectly. The deeper breaths associated with sighing help to bring more oxygen into the body and brain, which can improve focus and concentration.

Improved Mood

Physiologically, the activation of the PNS can promote relaxation and lower heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, as mentioned before. This shift in the body’s response can contribute to an improved mood. Additionally, the increased oxygen flow to the brain associated with deeper inhalation and exhalation can improve alertness, focus, and overall well-being, which can indirectly influence mood.

Psychologically, sighing can serve to release pent-up emotions, particularly negative ones like frustration, disappointment, or sadness. This can provide a sense of relief and contribute to a more positive emotional state. In some cases, sighing can also signal a sense of acceptance or resignation towards a situation, which can sometimes be the first step towards moving forward and improving mood.

Does it really work?

Yes, there is data that shows that 5 minutes a day will improve mood and anxiety as well as reduce physiological arousal (respiratory rate, heart rate, and heart rate variability). So next time you feel a sigh coming on, don’t stifle it! Embrace this natural reflex and allow your body to reap the benefits of this simple breath. Also, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, try sighing intentionally to help you feel more calm.

How can I sigh (on purpose) to achieve its benefits?

Intentional sighing as a breathing exercise can be particularly useful in moments of heightened stress, when you feel the heart racing, the sweat coming, and the worry flooding in to calm the nervous system.

To practice the physiological sigh, take an inhale, but before you get to the top, take another inhale. Then, expel all your air with an exhale. So, you do a double inhale followed by a long exhale. This specific two-inhalation, one-exhalation pattern is key to intentional sighing, as it activates the physiological mechanisms associated with relaxation and improved mood. Here, let’s try it.

Try it out!

  • Inhale: First, inhale through your nose, like a normal breath.
  • Double inhale: Without exhaling, take a second, deeper (often shorter) breath to fully expand your lungs, something like an extra “sip” of air.
  • Exhale: Then, slowly exhale all the air through your mouth. You may make a “HA” kind of sound as you do this. Allow the breath to release for a longer duration than the inhales.
  • Repeat: Repeat this process for up to 5 minutes.

IMPORTANT: Do the breathing exercise while sitting or lying down on a couch or bed – never in a situation that could put you in danger if you were to faint, such as in water, in the bath, or while driving.

References and Additional Resources

To learn more about how to activate the ‘sigh’ voluntarily to help reduce your stress in real-time, check out this episode of Huberman Lab Podcast: Tools for Managing Stress & Anxiety at about the 23-minute mark.



  • Ramirez JM. The integrative role of the sigh in psychology, physiology, pathology, and neurobiology. Prog Brain Res. 2014;209:91-129. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63274-6.00006-0. PMID: 24746045; PMCID: PMC4427060.
  • Balban MY, Neri E, Kogon MM, Weed L, Nouriani B, Jo B, Holl G, Zeitzer JM, Spiegel D, Huberman AD. Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Rep Med. 2023 Jan 17;4(1):100895. doi: 10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100895. Epub 2023 Jan 10. PMID: 36630953; PMCID: PMC9873947.

We can help.

Intentional sighing is just one of the many tools we teach patients about at MindStream to help them combat stress and anxiety and improve wellness. We offer a full toolkit of healing and treatment options and seek to improve overall health through whole-person care. That’s the beauty of integrative medicine and part of what makes MindStream Integrative Medicine so unique. To learn more and find out if MindStream may be right for you, schedule a discovery call or contact us.

About Susan Redmond, MD

Dr. Susan Redmond is a double board-certified Family Medicine and Integrative Medicine physician. She has a passion for primary care and preventive care for children and adults. While developing a relationship with patients, she focuses on the root cause of poor health to generate wellness and support the prevention of disease. Dr. Redmond takes an integrative approach encompassing physical, emotional, and spiritual health by encouraging self-care, supporting nutritional, supplemental, and exercise needs, and teaching mind/body medicine techniques. She is skilled in the management of chronic illnesses as well as identifying and treating acute problems. Learn more and get to know Dr. Redmond in this Q&A


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