"Cyclic Sighing" Beats Meditation for Stress-Reduction and Mood Improvement

"Cyclic Sighing" Beats Meditation for Stress-Reduction and Mood Improvement

Let’s acknowledge a disconcerting truth: America is in the grip of a stress epidemic. Whether it’s the result of uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, a loss of confidence in our social institutions, or the rise of technologies which breed distraction and division, the fact remains that on a collective level, America has never been more stressed out [1].

Most of us intuitively grasp the damaging effects of chronic stress, which include immune suppression [2], cognitive impairment [3], and accelerated aging [4]. Alleviating stress is no simple task, but if we want to optimize our health, it is imperative that we find strategies to do so.

A recent study published in Cell Reports points to a simple breathing technique as a great place to start. The exercise is easy to perform, accessible to everyone, and could have significant benefits for those seeking to mitigate the debilitating effects of stress.

Stanford Study Pits Breathwork Versus Meditation

In a 2023 study conducted by Stanford University, college students were subjected to a month-long comparison of four different breathing techniques to determine which strategy was most effective in reducing stress and improving mood [5]. The four breathwork methods that were evaluated are as follows:

  1. Cyclic sighing, which emphasizes deep, double inhales through the nose following by prolonged sighs out the mouth.
  2. Box breathing, which involves equal durations of inhalations, breath holds, and exhalations.
  3. Cyclic hyperventilation with retention, which involves longer inhalations and shorter exhalations.
  4. Mindfulness Meditation, with involves breathing normally, and simply paying attention to the breath.

Each technique was employed by participants for only 5-minutes per day.

The primary outcomes the researchers measured were mood, anxiety, respiratory rate, heart rate, sleep, and heart rate variability.

Cyclic Sighing Emerges as the Most Effective Stress Management Tool

The study found that of all the techniques, the most powerful stress-reducer and mood-booster was cycling sighing. This suggests that when it comes to improving mood and blunting stress, exerting intentional control over one’s breath appears to be more effective than simply exerting attentional focus on one's breath.

For those of you who don’t have the patience for or an affinity to meditation, this study provides a simple alternative, which is easy to employ, and appears to be even more effective (if better mood and reduced stress is your aim).


The Science Behind Cyclic Sighing

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all engage in cyclic sighing at different points throughout the day. We automatically employ this breathing strategy before and during sleep, and when we cry.

This technique soothes our bodies by triggering the activation of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This branch is responsible for restorative biological processes, such as sleep and digestion. It counteracts the effects of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, which activates the "fight, flight, freeze" response when the brain perceives a scenario of acute threat.

Whether we’re stressed or not, deliberately practicing cyclic sighing on a regular basis might entrain our nervous system to more efficiently engage its “cool, calm and collected” circuitry. In doing so, we may be able to short-circuit our body’s tendency towards anxiety, and the negative health consequences that come with it. 

The Cyclic Sighing Protocol

Incorporating cyclic sighing into your daily routine is simple and straightforward. Here's how to do it (note: a video with a guided session is included at the bottom of the article):

  • Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Begin by taking a deep breath in, filling your lungs almost to capacity. Then take a second inhale, taking in as much air as possible.
  • Exhale deeply, making a sighing sound.
  • Continue for 5 minutes, allowing the sighing breath to become longer, more relaxed and more natural as you go.

Bottom Line

The beauty of cyclic sighing is that it’s free, it can be done anywhere, and it requires no training. By incorporating it into your daily routine, you can reduce stress and improve your overall mood, no matter what life throws your way. So why not give it a try and see how it works for you?

Video: Guided Cyclic Sighing (5 Minutes) - Andrew Huberman



[1] https://www.apa.org/article/paragraph

[2] Dhabhar, F. S. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic research, 58(2-3), 193-210.

[3] Arnsten, A. F. (2015). Stress weakens prefrontal networks: molecular insults to higher cognition. Nature neuroscience, 18(10), 1376.

[4] Zannas, A. S., Arloth, J., Carrillo-Roa, T., Iurato, S., Röh, S., Ressler, K. J., … & Menke, A. (2015). Lifetime stress accelerates epigenetic aging in an urban, African American cohort: relevance of glucocorticoid signaling. Genome biology, 16(1), 266.

[5] Balban, M. Y., Neri, E., Kogon, M. M., Weed, L., Nouriani, B., Jo, B., ... & Huberman, A. D. (2023). Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Reports Medicine, 100895.

About our editorial team

The TWC Editorial team is comprised of various wellness practitioners from physiotherapists, acupuncturists, fitness instructors, herbalists, and MDs.

This article does not constitute medical advice. Please consult a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.
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