Take a breather: Sigh more to sigh no more
Cyclic sighing, which activates the vagus nerve in the body, is an instant nerve-calming breathing technique
Breathing out anxiety is just a long exhale away. While any kind of breath work is useful, cyclic sighing is one of the most effective. It enhances mood and lowers physiological arousal (respiratory rate, heart rate and heart rate variability), according to a report published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, in January this year.
Delhi-based college student Arpit Gupta is testimony to its potency. As a socially anxious person, he would stutter every time he had to face a group of people, especially strangers. A few quick rounds of exhalation-focused cyclic sighing, though, relax him instantly. Not just that, the technique that he learnt from his basketball coach in school has even reduced his stuttering.
In moments of severe stress, breathing takes a beating, causing an oxygen deficit in the brain. “Five minutes of daily cyclic sighing for three weeks offer results better than even mindfulness meditation, an otherwise powerful medium of relaxation,” says Gurugram-based psychotherapist Shagun Mehta, adding,
“The reason is that in cyclic sighing, the longest nerve in the body—the vagus—gets activated. With long belly exhalations, it secretes a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that brings the heart rate down and signals the body to relax. The vagus is also responsible for the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system of the brain responsible for essential body functions such as ‘rest and digest’. As this part is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system—the ‘fight or flight’ response—gets suppressed.”
Even though there are other breathing styles to calm oneself, such as box breathing, which involves inhaling, holding and exhaling in equal proportions, and cyclic hyperventilation (a rapid inhalation, short retention and a forceful exhalation), cyclic sighing follows a 1:2 ratio in which exhalation is twice as long as inhalation, making it the most effective.
“It allows for a greater interception that helps you notice what’s going on inside the body and regulate it. For example, if you know you’re breathing short because of stress, you’ll consciously correct that by breathing deeply,” says Mehta. It all begins and ends with a sigh, it seems.