Stress can have a big impact on digestion, especially for those who already struggle with gut problems. Stress is also a normal part of life and not something you can usually run away from or switch off easily. Everyone is talking about stress more than ever, and how detrimental it can be to health, you might even feel stressed about being stressed. Yet, there are very few realistic coping tools offered.
We have all heard of methods for dealing with stress, like meditation, taking a hot bath, or exercise. All of which are fantastic tools, but they take time out of our day — time that many people don’t have to spare. It’s only natural that we reach for not-so-healthy coping tools, the most common being food or alcohol.
Whether we are choosing healthy or unhealthy stress coping strategies, the goal is the same — utilising the parasympathetic “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system to counteract the arousal of stress.
What we need is a realistic tool that can be used in real time, as often as you need. Turns out we have this tool built into our bodies!
The Physiological Sigh
Specific breathing patterns to reduce stress are not new. You might have heard of box breathing, or experienced the power of your breath during a meditation or yoga session.
A physiological sigh is a particular breathing pattern that is unique, because it seems to be more effective than other common practices such as mindfulness meditation, and takes seconds to have an effect. It turns out that It’s something we do all the time involuntarily, during the moments before we are about to fall asleep, during sleep, and when we cry.
A physiological sigh is a particular breathing pattern when two inhales take place followed by a long exhale. When we inhale twice the surface area of the lungs increases and removes CO2 from the body much more efficiently. This makes the body feel more relaxed. When we take long exhales, the receptors in the heart sense the increase in pressure, this sends signals to the brain to slow down the heart rate, which promotes relaxation.
How to use the physiological sigh to reduce stress
You can learn and use this breathing pattern at any time you’re feeling stressed or anxious.
Take two sharp inhales through the nose.
Then one slow sighing exhale out the mouth
repeat 3 times.
Pro tip: Make the sigh as long as possible, until your lungs are completely empty.
Applying it to digestion
It’s well known that stress impacts digestion. The stress response is an evolutionary advantage, which ensures that we can summon up the energy during times of great stress to run away from danger in order to survive. It's meant to last only for short bursts or short duration, to release stress hormones that divert the blood flow away from organs and toward big muscles. During this time usual automatic processes like digestion get put on standby because your body is saying this is not time to digest food. After the threat is gone, the nervous system resets back to a resting state, referred to as “rest and digest”.
Apply this to any given day, where you’re busy rushing about, stressed by traffic, your boss, children etc. Meals are squeezed into the day, and probably involve multitasking. Your body isn’t receiving messages that are saying “hey, we’re safe, it’s time to digest”.
The beauty of the physiological sigh is that it takes seconds to do. Taking 10 seconds before you eat to do three rounds of the physiological sigh, to let your body know that it’s time to prepare for digestion can help to reduce the likelihood of experiencing symptoms like reflux, gas and bloating that commonly occur when we eat in a rushed and stressed state.
For the skeptics
If you’re thinking that it sounds too good to be true, I encourage you to give it a go before passing judgment.
I am a pretty big skeptic when it comes to “health hacks”, and even after learning about the physiological sigh through the research from David Spiegel and Andrew Huberman, I didn’t have high hopes.
My own personal experience with the physiological sigh is worth sharing, in hope of encouraging you to try this technique.
I have a long history of anxiety, but it had been mostly under control until last year when I started to experience panic attacks for the first time in my life. Anyone who has experienced panic attacks knows how terrifying and difficult to manage they are, especially when they don’t seem to have any particular trigger. I had close to zero hope that the physiological sigh would be able to stop a panic attack in its tracks, but decided I had nothing to lose by trying.
Turns out I was wrong.
Having a tool like this that has the power to pull me out of the vortex of doom that is a panic attack, is life changing. I have found that simply doing three rounds is no way near enough for this situation, but I’m happy to pace around my house physiological sighing for as long as it takes if it means I can avoid a full blown panic attack.
Give it a go. Your breath is a powerful tool, and it’s free.