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  • Writer's pictureFiona Grignard

Unlocking Calm: The fast-acting power of the Physiological Sigh

I think most of us are pretty much the same when it comes to tools and practices for health and well-being : demanding and impatient.

Well, I might have exactly what you're looking for to help relieve stress, regulate emotions and balance the nervous system when the pressure is intense and you start loosing your calm.

One technique that has garnered attention for its simplicity and effectiveness is the "physiological sigh."

Endorsed by Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman (you know I love him!), among others, this method can help you harness the power of your breath to calm your mind and body.

It's easy, fast and free. What else do you want?

Why we tell you to breathe when you're stressed : The Science Behind Breathwork

Breathwork, including techniques like the physiological sigh, is a powerful tool for stress reduction because it directly influences the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS' role is to regulate vital functions such as heart rate, digestion, or respiratory rate, according to the body's internal and external environment and allocating resources to respond to that environment and whether it basically judges it safe or unsafe. (We are animals after all, and the primary role of our nervous system is to keep us alive.)

The autonomic nervous system has two primary branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which prepares the body for 'fight or flight' responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which promotes 'rest and digest' states.

However, there's something special and unique about breathing: it is pretty much the only function that operates both automatically and under our conscious intention.

You can't slow your heart beat just by deciding you want to, you can't control how much sweat your body produces, nor how big your pupils dilate. They're all automatic and you rarely pay attention to them.

But with breathing though, if you decide to change its pattern, you can do so in a second and without training.

This dual nature allows us to influence our autonomic nervous system.

Your body and mind constantly communicate to each other. And to my surprise when I learnt about it, the flow of information going from the body to the mind (like your rapid heart beat and shallow breath) is way more important than the flow of information going from the mind to the body (like when you tell yourself "It's ok, it's not a big problem, just calm down").

But not like "a little more". We're talking 80% of the information goes from the body to the mind, and only 20% from the mind to the body.

By regulating your breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, sending powerful signals to the brain to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Long story short : if you want to calm yourself down, you'll be way more efficient focusing on your breathing than using your mind.

This is how I picture it :

Your brain is all fired up ready for attack thinking we're going to die.

Then it starts receiving messages from the breath, all calm, deep and peaceful.

Brain goes "Wait, what? Breath is calm? oh, well that must mean we're ok then. Cause if there was actual danger, we couldn't afford that, Breath would be fast and shallow. Alrighty then, false alarm, let's all calm the f*** down everyone! Heart rate, blood pressure, sweat, pupils, hormones, you're good, you can all relax... "

(Note : I purposefully overly simplified the previous explanations to make them easily digestible but if you're curious to learn about the nervous system in details, I suggest you read about the Polyvagal Theory from Dr. Stephen Porges).

How to practice the Physiological Sigh

Great news, it's super simple:

  1. Inhale deeply through your nose.

  2. Take a second, smaller inhalation to fully expand your lungs.

  3. Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth.

That's it.

This sequence can be repeated 1-5 times whenever you feel stressed or anxious for immediate relief. It can be done anywhere, in the office bathroom before an important meeting or even during a heated conversation (I've tried it, it worked pretty well).

Short-Term Benefits:

  1. Immediate Stress Reduction: A study by Krasnow et al. (2013) demonstrated that the physiological sigh can quickly reduce anxiety and reset the respiratory system.

  2. Lowered Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, this technique can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, promoting a state of calm.

Long-Term Benefits:

Incorporating it into your daily routine for a few minutes can also yield long-term benefits.

  1. Enhanced Emotional Regulation: Regular practice can improve your ability to manage emotions, leading to greater resilience in the face of stress.

  2. Improved Cognitive Function: Reduced stress levels contribute to better focus, decision-making, and overall cognitive performance.

  3. Cardiovascular Health: Long-term engagement with breathwork can enhance cardiovascular health by consistently lowering stress-related blood pressure spikes.

Want to know more?

Check out this episode of the Andrew Huberman's podcast : Tools for managing stress and anxiety (03.2021)

The Polyvagal Theory is an amazing resources to better understand how the nervous system works and its influence on our lives.

Dig into some of the research :

  1. Krasnow et al. (2013) showed that the physiological sigh helps regulate emotional states by resetting the respiratory system, making it an effective tool for immediate stress relief.

  2. Jerath et al. (2006) found significant reductions in stress and anxiety through deep breathing techniques, attributing these effects to enhanced parasympathetic activity.

  3. Noble and Hochman (2019) highlighted the benefits of controlled breathing on heart rate variability, a key indicator of autonomic nervous system balance and overall cardiovascular health.

  4. Huberman et al. (2023) demonstrated that cyclic sighing, a form of the physiological sigh, significantly improved mood and reduced anxiety more effectively than mindfulness meditation. The study found that this technique lowered resting breathing rates, suggesting a lasting effect on physiology and highlighting the power of controlled breathwork for stress management.


I hope this helped.



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