Why Do We Sigh?

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.”
— Shakespeare

Why do we sigh? It’s a gesture which expresses emotions ranging from exasperation to restlessness to frustration with an uncommitted lover, as Shakespeare bemoans in the quote above.

But it’s not all gloom and doom: Sighs don’t always represent a negative expression. Often, those who sigh are conveying happy expressions like inspiration, admiration, yearning, relief, awe or love. What’s more, human sighs are a fascinating involuntary physical response our body elicits to reset breathing patterns.

Intrigued? Read on to learn more about the interesting phenomenon that is the sigh.

Why Do We Sigh?What Is a Sigh?

Can any old deep breath be a sigh? Not quite. A sigh needs to be a recognizable act of breathing, including an inhalation and expiration. It needs to be strong enough to be audible for a nearby observer.

We can understand sighing from a physical and psychological standpoint. The psychological aspects are more familiar to us — we understand the emotional and mental cues that trigger sighing. The physical aspects of sighing have only recently been discovered. It starts with a tale about alveoli in distress.

The Story of Collapsing Alveoli

The lungs are composed of three main components. The first is the trachea, which link your throat to your lungs. Next, come the bronchiole, which carry oxygen from the trachea to your inner lung. And finally comes the alveoli. These are the components of the lungs which filter air from the outside into your blood cells. They also absorb carbon dioxide from your blood and send it back outside.

Your lungs are packed with hundreds of millions of alveoli. Imagine millions of tiny, flexible balloons that spend their lifetime getting blown up and deflated, helping you get the oxygen you need to live.

For such an important job, it’s not surprising that these little guys get tired sometimes. At times, alveoli become a bit stiff. When that happens, they alveoli can sometimes collapse. At that point, your lungs can’t properly push air into the alveoli, and the whole system is threatened.

Enter the sigh.

Rescuing the Alveoli With a Sigh

Your alveoli collapsed, and the lungs are sending a distress signal to your brain. What happens next? It turns out that the brain is equipped with the power of the sigh to help the lungs get back to working order.

How and why this happens was discovered in a new study spearheaded by Jack Feldman, Ph.D. Feldman is a scientist at the renowned Brain Research Institute at UCLA. Together with Mark Krasnow, a researcher from Stanford University School of Medicine, the research team set out to discover why the body sighs.

The team used mice to study sighing. Mice have a very similar respiratory system as humans, and sigh as much as 40 times per minute. They studied the neural networks of the mice to understand where the sighs were originating from.

The researchers discovered that sighing originates at two tiny clusters of neurons in the brain stem which link to, and help control, the lungs. These tiny clusters are able to automatically convert normal breaths into a sigh when our alveoli need some help. And the alveoli need help quite often. In fact, the center that triggers the sigh does so automatically every five minutes — a dozen times an hour.

What this brain center is doing is pressing the “reset button” for the alveoli. During your sigh, the lung will bring it twice as much air volume as a normal breath. This provides the force necessary to ensure that any collapsed air sacs are re-inflated and back in business.

The study reveals that sighing is extremely important for human health and optimal functioning. It’s a life-sustaining reflex that’s just as important as the famous flight-or-fight response. It ensures that the lungs are exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide properly. To breath properly, you need to sigh.

This research is valuable because some people have lung damage and need to be placed on machines to stimulate their breathing. Discovering how and why the sigh happens could lead to the creation of drugs which can target the brain areas that stimulate sighing to ensure that these patients are breathing in a way which includes every necessary component.

Why Do We Sigh
What About Emotional Sighing?

Does this mean that we can chalk up our emotional sighs to a bunch of brain cells and a few collapsed alveoli? Not quite. Emotional sighing, that is sigh done as a response to an emotional cue such as exasperation, is more complex.

The answers aren’t 100 percent clear, but researchers agree that humans sigh when they are stressed. This could be due to the fact that the neurons in the brain areas which process emotion are somehow also triggering the cluster which stimulates sighing.

On the psychological front, research by scientist Kyle J. Teigan shows that, for most people, sighs express a mismatch between ideals and realities. A belief is disconfirmed, a hope has to be abandoned, a wish is disappointed, a dream or some other cherished possession may be lost. We realize that we are helpless and that we have to resign and let go. According to his research, the sigh carries two messages: something is wrong or there is nothing to be done.

Teigan notes that sighs aren’t all bad. His research showed that people also talk about blissful sighs, sighs of enjoyment, sighs of love and sighs of relief.

All of these pieces still need to be put together, and the jury is still out on the answer to solve the question of emotional sighs. But in the meantime, sigh to your heart’s content. Your alveoli need the loving.

10 Categories of Sighs to Help You Navigate Your Relationship

Sighing helps with your breathing and can help you navigate some tough emotional situations. But did you know that sighing can also help with your relationships?

OK, we are being a bit facetious here, but we thought we’d round off this article with a few relationship situations which are made tolerable with the help of the sigh.

  1. The “I’ve heard your parrot joke ad nauseam, but because I love you, I’ll laugh uproariously like I’m hearing it for the first time when you tell it in front of our new friends” sigh.
  2. The “I just realized I’m 100 percent wrong during our argument but I’m not going to back down, so instead I’ll pretend I find you far too tedious to continue” sigh.
  3. The “I cannot believe Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan split up” sigh or his coordinating answering sigh of, “I cannot believe you waste time paying attention to people we will never break bread with.”
  4. The “Oh, so you didn’t bother to shave” sigh. She gives it as she glances at your shadowy face when your mother-in-law rings the doorbell. He gives it in bed as his hands slide expectantly down your leg.
  5. The “You ate the last one?” sigh. Heard from the kitchen through the frantic rummaging of cellophane during a particularly riveting episode of Game of Thrones.
  6. The “If you’re really paying attention then repeat back to me what I just said” sigh.
  7. The Entrapment Sigh – “Oh? Did you think you just heard me sigh? What have you done recently that would make me sigh?”
  8. The “It’s your turn” sigh. Heard when dishes pile up in the sink, children argue, you’re out of eggs or the car needs gas.
  9. The “You gave the wrong answer to my asking if my wedding ring makes my finger look fat” sigh. And his corresponding, “How many variations are there to that same old fat question?” sigh.
  10. The Phantom Sigh. Your significant other is out of town, yet you still hear it reverberating loudly off the empty, silent walls of darkened, stagnant rooms. (Closely related to the Guilty Conscience Sigh.)

A Sigh of Conclusion

Sighs are everywhere. People around you are sighing 12 times per hour, and you find references to the sigh in literary texts ranging from religious hymns to romantic poems to popular songs and Peanuts cartoons. To end this article, we are going to disagree with the famous “As Time Goes By” lyric, “a sigh is just a sigh.” They are so much more. Sighs are an important cultural, physical and psychological phenomenon, and now you know a bit more about them.

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Spire is dedicated to helping you live a happier, healthier lifestyle with an easy-to-use device for mindful breathing techniques. Learn more about the benefits of breath-tracking at Spire.io.


Anxiety, Body & Mind

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