The sigh as a resetting mechanism makes a lot of sense. The respiratory system is highly complex, with many different feedback mechanisms, such as the sensing of carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, as well as pH levels, in the blood. To add even further complexity, such feedback mechanisms interact with other systems, such as the cardiovascular system, as well. And, of course, there is the need to respond to internal and external demands.
The sigh as a resetting mechanism fits in here, now. If the balance is out, a sigh can right the balance. A sigh, which Vlemincx and colleagues defined for their 2010 study as a breath at least 2.5 times deeper than the prior baseline, offers a sense of relief from emotional and mental loads.
Sighing: Letting Go and Hitting Reset
It is surprising that sighing has not been a topic of empirical psychological research until the twenty-first century. About the only place sighing makes an appearance is in studies of panic disorder, where it has been shown that such patients “hit reset” about twice as frequently as control subjects — an average of 21 times versus 10.8 times over a thirty-minute period of sitting quietly in a comfortable chair. Yet, there has been little interest in the interpretation of sighs generally, although there are certainly folk psychology understandings.
Karl Teigen opened up this area with empirical studies of what sighs mean to the sighers and the observers of sighs. His findings, while reflecting only northern European culture, are interesting, particularly in their illumination of sigher-observer differences.
For sighers, the act implicitly carries two messages. First, something is not right, that is, there is a mismatch of how I wish it to be and how it actually is. Perhaps there is a situation in which I begin to see that I’m not going to get what I need, or maybe I’m working hard to reach some end or some solution to a problem, and I realize that I may not be successful. Second, the message is a movement toward acceptance, that is, there is a sense that I must “let go” of something.
Sighs of Relief or Pleasure
Even sighs of relief or pleasure could fit this basic description. Relief could be read as a letting go of negative expectations. Pleasure could be seen as a letting go of agendas and surrendering to the moment. Lover’s sighs may be generated by the mismatch of longing for the one not available to us or by the presence of the beloved, to whom we give ourselves — the erotic form of letting go.
Sighers most often interpreted their own sighs from this something’s wrong/need to let go perspective. As social communication, the meaning of a sigh seems to follow self-knowledge, as the typical interpretation is that the sigher finds something or someone “hopeless” and is giving up (or letting go).
Maybe you noticed a spontaneous sigh as you read the last several paragraphs? Maybe one is due right now?
The Benefit of Sighing on Purpose
We have found that people who report enough life stress to take a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course often find benefit from sighing — on purpose. Here’s how we instruct them:
Inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, making a quiet, relaxing sigh as you exhale. Taking long, slow, gentle breaths that raise and lower your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. Focusing on the sound and feeling of the breath.
You can use cues throughout your daily routine to remind yourself to take three to six relaxing sighs (red lights while driving, telephone sounds, waiting for elevators, waiting in line, etc.). You may want to place stickers in areas where you look frequently, or areas that cause you stress, as a reminder (computer, refrigerator, watch, cell phone, spouse’s forehead [just joking!]).
Tune in to a sense of relief, if you find one. Tune in to what happens next. Perhaps a yawn follows your sighs?
Workin’ ’n’ Sighin’: When Trying and Trying Again
When folks are working on a tough task, where they have to try, try again, sighs occur. And it makes sense. Brainteasers provoked sighs in one study by Teigen. He reports that almost 80 percent of participants sighed while working on the problems, with an average of four clearly marked sighs each, and two doubtful ones (a breath that may be a sigh, or maybe not). And here’s the telltale — one participant actually said the word sigh at three different times, without really sighing. This paragraph in Teigen’s discussion is rich in description of how we live and work with sighing.
Sighs occurred throughout the experiment, some sighed already when they received the task, and some when they handed it in, but most sighs appeared to occur in the breaks after one or several fruitless attempts. When interviewed, 12 participants (of 36) remembered explicitly that they had sighed (but not necessarily when), whereas the majority had not been aware of sighing, but admitted it was likely, given the nature of the task. Three participants (who actually sighed) denied categorically that they had sighed, one said: “I may have felt like sighing, but I did not, because it would have been rude.” When asked to give probable reasons for sighing, they explained that they may have sighed because they had to give up, they were frustrated, felt helpless, or stupid.
How do you work with sighing? When does it come into your attention? What might you learn by turning toward the sighing in your life?
©2012 by Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Healing Arts Press,
a division of Inner Traditions Intl. www.HealingArtsPress.com
New World Mindfulness -- from the Founding Fathers, Emerson, and Thoreau to your Personal Practice
by Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D.
Dispelling the two big myths of mindfulness -- that it is an “exotic” activity and that it requires you to “slow down and find more time” -- the authors reveal a high-speed form of contemplation ideal for even the busiest lives. Exploring the physiological impact of mindfulness practices for stress, anxiety, depression, and coping with serious illness and major life changes, the authors show that mindfulness is not about being silent and alone -- it can even be practiced as a family or community.
About the Authors
Donald McCown is assistant professor of integrative health at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and the former director of the Mindfulness at Work program at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine. Coauthor of Teaching Mindfulness, he also teaches advanced mindfulness courses for the general public, and teaches clinicians to teach mindfulness. He maintains a practice of mindfulness-based psychotherapy and teaches in the post graduate marriage and family therapy program at Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He has particular clinical and research interest in the use of mindfulness in working with adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities and their families, and with artists and professionals negotiating anxiety and depression in their lives.
Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D., is adjunct professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University School of Medicine and the founding director of the Policy Institute for Integrative Medicine in Washington, D.C. Trained as both a medical physician and an anthropologist, Dr. Micozzi was the founding editor of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He is the author and editor of Fundamentals of Complementary & Alternative Medicine and coauthor of The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion.