While you'll know all about the benefits of meditation - the calm-boosting, zen-enhancing practice is well documented scientifically and on social media - you might not have heard of cyclic sighing or the many benefits that come with the niche practice.
Never heard of it? Don't worry - while discovered in the 1930's, the first extensive study was only carried out earlier this year. Researchers at Stanford University did a deep dive into cyclic sighing in February and concluded that it could be key to reducing stress and boosting mood.
It's essentially a form of breathwork training that one recent study even found could be a more useful stress-busting tool than the likes of sleep meditation or visualisation practice. “They found that it can be more effective than box breathing and mindfulness meditation when it comes to stress reduction, nervous system regulation and improving mood,” shares Jamie Clements, breathwork practitioner and founder of The Breath Space.
Want a technique that will help keep your stress levels in check? This one's for you. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about cyclic sighing, how to do it yourself at home, plus what happened when I gave it a go for two months.
Cyclic sighing: your guide to the stress-busting practice
What is cyclic sighing?
Cyclic sighing, also known as the physiological sigh or double inhale, is a controlled breathing exercise. "It aims to help calm the body’s nervous system and promote relaxation," explains Joely Franklin, breathwork coach and founder of Breath Evolution.
She prompts you to ask yourself the following. "Have you ever found yourself sighing randomly throughout the day? Or perhaps you have a pet and you notice they do?". If your answer is yes - often, you're practising cyclic sighing without even realising it, she confirms.
So, why do we do it? "Well, sighing is one of the many ways the body naturally relaxes itself and releases pent-up stress and energy," Franklin explains. That said, in recent years, cyclic sighing has shifted from being something you do naturally to something experts are encouraging we do consciously, largely thanks to the newfound benefits it offers to your mental well-being. "You can use it proactively to create positive changes in mood, reduce stress and regulate the nervous system," Clements says.
8 benefits of cyclic sighing
While things like journaling for anxiety, meditation and breathwork have all been found to effectively reduce anxiety, the recent Stanford research found that just five minutes of cyclic sighing each day could improve mood and reduce anxiety symptoms.
So how does it work? Well, cyclic sighing helps to calm the nervous system and relax the body and mind. It does this by kickstarting the parasympathetic nervous system aka the rest and digest response, which is a direct neutraliser to the sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response. "This leads to a decrease in the release of stress hormones like cortisol, promoting a sense of relaxation and reducing feelings of stress and anxiety," explains Clements.
Unlike other traditional breathing exercises, the research at Stanford found elements of the cyclic sigh could reduce stress and regulate the nervous system in a unique way. This was thanks to two key elements: the second inhale and the extended exhale.
Clements explains: "The second inhale in a cyclic sigh helps to re-inflate the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs, which can lead to better oxygenation and improved gas exchange. In turn, this can reduce stress and help deepen your natural breath for a greater sense of calm."
And, that's not all. The extended exhale - or sigh in this case - is key to slowing the heart rate and breathing rate, and stimulating the vagus nerve which signals to the brain that it's time to relax. "Making our exhale longer than our inhale, as with the cyclic sigh, slows our heart rate and activates our body's rest and digest mode within the nervous system," Clements adds. Franklin adds that this technique also gives the mind something to focus on when thoughts are racing.
The Stanford study also found that cyclic sighing is the most effective technique at reducing our breathing rate (the number of breaths we take per minute) which can have a positive impact on mood. "The study found that participants were breathing more slowly not just during the technique, but throughout the day, indicating a lasting effect on reducing stress within the nervous system," Clements adds.
I tried cyclic sighing for two months - it reduced my stress levels tenfold
As a mindfulness and meditation teacher who's been meditating personally for almost ten years, I’ve tried many breathwork techniques in my time. So, when David Spiegel, Andrew Huberman and Melis Yilmaz Balban’s research into the cyclical sigh was released earlier this year, I decided to put the technique to the test.
When I began practising cyclical sighing, I was in the middle of leaving the corporate world for self-employed life, starting a new business and moving house. It's fair to say, I was pretty overwhelmed and feeling stressed. Knowing how to relax felt - well, impossible. So, I turned inward to see if actively trying to balance my nervous system could help me manage my current situation just a little bit better.
Enter stage right, cyclical sighing. I swapped my usual daily body scan meditation for five minutes of cyclic sighing and to my surprise, it was instant sweet relief. The first few sighs in that first practice were cathartic, an opportunity for me to let go of all the stress and tension I was holding in my body. That feeling continued the more I practised.
I felt refreshed, my focus improved and it helped me to act, rather than react. As the Stanford team found in their research, by actively changing my breathing pattern I was able to change my body's response to a stressor and in turn, give myself space to see my situation from a new perspective.
It's always a bonus for me if I can practice comfortably and subtly on public transport dashing between meetings which is a huge reason why I loved this technique and continue to do it today when I feel I need to re-set. It's easy to do alone or with guidance (see our top guided practices below), and you really can do it anytime and anywhere.
3 best cyclic sighing tutorials, picked by an expert
1. 5 minute guided cyclic sighing
What? "This is a great short guided practice that offers the user the opportunity to follow along," says Franklin. "I recommend it for anyone who has never done this technique before."
How long? 5 minutes.
2. Quick two minute cyclic sighing tutorial
What? "Mike offers a wonderful guided practice with music to follow along," says Franklin. "Again, this is a nice short video you can watch at any time of day."
How long? 2 and a half minutes.
3. History of cyclic sighing
What? "This is a short video that shares more about the history of the cyclical sigh and its importance and benefits with Andrew Huberman, one of the researchers involved in the Stanford study," says Franklin.
How long? Two and a half minutes.
Still feeling stressed or anxious after reading this piece? Do note - no amount of meditation or breathwork will ever replace vising a qualified professional. Do make sure to book an appointment with your doctor, if you're struggling with your mental health.
Is cyclic sighing better than mindfulness?
Short answer - it'll depend on what you enjoy the most, as studies show you're far more likely to stick to something if you enjoy it.
That said, recent research on cyclic sighing by Stanford University found that it helps to calm the nervous system and relax the body and mind in a rather unique way thanks to the combination of the second inhale and the extended exhale.
In short, while the research concluded that these don't make the practice "better" than mindfulness, it does mean it offers different physical benefits, such as better oxygenation, slowed heart and breathing rate, and stimulation of the vagus nerve.
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Ciara McGinley is a freelance journalist, editor and mindfulness meditation practitioner. She covers health, wellbeing and lifestyle topics for her favourite women's lifestyle publications including Marie Claire, Stylist, Red Magazine and Woman & Home. She's all about betting that mind-body connection, and takes her self-care and night-time routine very seriously... When she's not writing or teaching meditation, you'll find her trying out the latest wellness trend, or escaping London for a hiking weekend.
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