As a result of the traumatic experiences I have endured, I like to control my environment. I organize my day by maximizing quality working time and minimizing external and internal distractions. I might do things like pack my lunch and lay my clothes out for the next day, or pick an optimal driving route to school and stick with it. App notifications stress me out, so I keep my phone on Do Not Disturb for most of the day.
I thrive in settings with clear expectations and a defined structure, but I can also become distressed—anything from an eye roll to a sort of debilitating anxious purgatory—when my expectations mismatch how a situation unfolds. I am fully capable of any task; it’s just a question of will I get into a focused state where nothing can distract me, or will I need to give myself a pep talk every five minutes? My go-to three-second pep talk is, “Take the struggle out.”
Cue the pandemic, for which no one knew what to expect. This was uncharted territory. When the pandemic started, all the structure and support I had in my life took a hit. My legs were taken out from under me. The excessive amount of food in my kitchen that my husband panic-bought was heavy on my mind. I couldn’t go to the gym or yoga studio to sweat out my anxiety. On top of that, my advisor—who makes me feel needed, important, and valued in a way that I lacked growing up—was swamped with his own transition to working from home. Our meetings became less frequent and rushed. As a result, I felt off-kilter, stranded, and overwhelmed. I thought my nervous system might explode.
Feeling disoriented and distressed, I sought anxiety interventions outside of my traditional therapy sessions that seemed drastic enough to snap me out of it; something analogous to splashing ice-cold water on my face but for my nervous system.
I joined a group of strangers on Zoom who were seeking interventions for their anxiety and stress. During the meeting, I found myself rolling around on the floor in my office like a toddler. I noticed I needed to dust my printer as I was dodging the wheels of my desk chair. Afterward, we faked laughter, hoping it would turn into real laughter. It didn’t; for me, at least. We tried other things too and each felt as strange as the last.
These types of interventions are supposed to flip the off-switch of your nervous system, but they did not feel effective for me nor practical to implement daily. Switching gears to something more familiar, I started to take the Zoom classes that my yoga studio was offering. Through yoga, I came across the physiological sigh.
Often, a yoga teacher will cue breathing techniques. One day, my teacher said, “Empty your lungs. Take a deep, long inhale through your nose. Pause at the top. Sip in a little more air. Now let it all go.” We did it three times. She went on to tell us that this is the physiological sigh, and it is scientifically proven to reduce stress. I felt my body relax and knew this was the kind of anxiety intervention for me. I like the physiological sigh because it is outwardly imperceptible compared with rolling around on the floor like a toddler, yet effectively reduces the sensations of anxiety in my body.
Intrigued, I looked into the science of the sigh. In 2016, a group of researchers at the University of Leuven, Belgium, showed that the physiological sigh reduces muscle tension in the body and enhances self-reported relief for anxious people. Previous research had shown that sighs are a sign of relief, but these researchers sought to determine if an instructed sigh, as my yoga teacher did, has the power to cause relief.
Study participants made up three different groups. One received no breath instruction, the second received instruction to hold a breath for two seconds, and the third received instruction through a physiological sigh. Researchers gave all three groups comforting instructions and stress-inducing instructions, after which the researchers would instruct (or not) the breathing techniques. Afterward, anxious participants reported more relief from the physiological sigh and showed more reduced muscle tension after they sighed than the other groups.
According to a review on sighs from 2015, an important part of our breathing is that it needs to be variable and flexible to accommodate our different states of being: resting, being awake, or exercising. All of that is controlled in the brain by a group of brain cells called the pre-Bӧtzinger complex. Sighing can help you reset the variability and flexibility of your breathing, which in turn regulates your emotions. The researchers in Belgium showed that if you sigh intentionally, you can self-regulate your relief from distressing emotions.
If you are experiencing anxiety, instead of fake laughing like the unhinged individual you might feel like in that moment (and possibly scaring those around you), guide yourself through the physiological sigh and see if it works for you the way it continues to work for me.
This article is published in partnership with the ComSciCon-Triangle Science Communication Conference & Workshop.