Can you think back to a time when you found yourself gasping for air while crying? If you can, you may remember doing two quick inhales followed by a long exhale. This is a natural spontaneous behavior called “cyclic sighing” or the “physiological sigh”. Cyclic sighing brings people into a relaxed state – our bodies naturally know how to do it. It’s also a recognized breathwork technique that’s intentionally used to increase relaxation and change the state of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system automatically regulates important bodily functions like heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion – without us ever needing to think about them. This system includes two divisions, the sympathetic division that gets activated when you feel stressed or in danger, and the parasympathetic division that helps your body relax.
When you breathe in, your heart rate increases, activating the sympathetic division, and when you breathe out, your heart rate decreases, activating the parasympathetic division. Cyclic sighing involves a longer exhale, which helps stimulate the parasympathetic division, in turn helping you calm down. There are several breathwork techniques that can stimulate these two divisions and cause physiological changes.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, a member of the WHOOP Scientific Advisory Council and a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology, conducted a study that compared breathwork to mindful meditation. Participants in the study wore WHOOP to monitor their biometrics and were asked to perform one of the assigned exercises below for five minutes a day over the course of one month.
The study found that all 4 techniques improved mood and reduced feelings of stress, but that only cyclic sighing was significantly better than mindful meditation at improving mood and reducing respiratory rate.
Even though cyclic sighing proved to be the most effective breathwork technique, all three breathing exercises were more effective at improving mood and reducing respiratory rates than mindful meditation. This is thought to be caused by the enhanced sense of control over one’s breath that’s involved with breathwork, compared to the more passive experience of mindful meditation.
Breathwork is also likely effective because the heart, lungs, and brain function closely together through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Due to this connection, the effects of breathwork are able to reach the heart and brain, influencing HRV, mood and sleep.
While 5 minutes of breathwork will show potent and acute benefits, Dr. Andrew Huberman’s study also showed that the benefits of breathwork increase with practice and time. Meaning the more you adhere to breathwork, the greater the benefit.
De Couck, Marijke, et al. “Effects of short and prolonged transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation on heart rate variability in healthy subjects.” Autonomic Neuroscience 203 (2017): 88-96.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1566070216302648
Chen, Pin-Chun, et al. “Understanding the roles of central and autonomic activity during sleep in the improvement of working memory and episodic memory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119.44 (2022): e2123417119. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2123417119
Huberman, Melis Yilmaz, et al. “Brief Structured Respiration Practices Enhance Mood and Reduce Physiological Arousal.” Cell Reports Medicine, Elsevier, 10 Jan. 2023, https://www.cell.com/cell-reports-medicine/fulltext/S2666-3791(22)00474-8