DB commented the other day that I’ve been sighing a lot. I had no idea.

Significance of Sighing
A humorous picture of a man lying across railway tracks, 1909.
Photograph by Frank Ernest Allen (1887-1964) via State Library Victoria

But now that he’s mentioned it, I’m noticing I do it all the time!

So I decided to find out why.

The Medical Explanations

According to Fiona MacDonald, you sigh every five minutes or so – it’s a reflex! But it’s not the out breath that’s important, it’s the additional in breath you take before you sigh it out.

The lungs are made of tiny sacks called alveoli, and if you don’t take deep breaths they collapse and can’t exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. You suffocate and die.

Obviously you can’t take deep breaths continuously or you’d get dizzy and faint! So, the brain triggers a second in breath you don’t know you’re taking before you sigh it out pops them open again.

Sighing as an Emotional Reset

Jordan Gaines Lewis tells us that sighs are usually associated with negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety or frustration, and they occur as often in public as they do in private. When you observe people sighing, you think they’re sad, but we often sigh more from frustration.

Like when you’re trying to learn a new software programme (I’m looking at you Photoshop).

Sighing as a Stress Response

Markham Heid says that sighs can also be a response to stress. When you’re stressed, you default to quick shallow breathing as you prepare for fight or flight. Sighing slows and deepens breathing.

And goodness knows there’s a lot to be stressed about these days!

The Upshot

So, I can’t stop sighing, even if I want to.

But, I can pause now and again throughout the day to take a few deep breaths, and I can do yoga or tai chi or sing to increase my lung capacity.

I can be more diligent in my mediation practice, and I can take more exercise to reduce stress.

I can open windows to let in the fresh air and improve the indoor air quality.

And I will remember, it’s an involuntary response mechanism!


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