The Body Sighs for Mental Health


New research suggests the power of breath, sighing, and meditation.




I have been sighing a lot lately as I review the mentally distressing social news about police brutality, genocide, mass murders, and the like. My wife has noticed that I sigh whenever I am deeply concerned about something. However, I did not expect to sigh about some new psychiatric research.

Back in November, a study came out touting that mindfulness meditation could reduce anxiety as much as a standard antidepressant drug over a 2-month period.1 That sounded promising, though not necessarily practically easy. Compared to swallowing a pill a day, the meditators needed to practice 45-minute daily meditations, plus some supplemental techniques and weekend retreats.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that it took only 3 months to hear of another study of healthy young adults that found that 3 different 5-minute breath work daily exercises were as effective in improving mood and anxiety as 5-minute mindfulness meditation over a period of 1 month.2 Moreover, one type of breath work was the most effective, that being the cycle sighing one, which emphasizes prolonged exhalations. One explanation for the difference is the stimulated parasympathetic nervous system, which slows heart rate and excitement. Meditations just paid passive attention to one’s breath.

These studies certainly have limitations. They need to be repeated, extended in time, and include other therapies, including the notorious 10-minute med checks.

Historically, deliberate breathing practices have existed in wellness and spiritual practices for centuries, especially in eastern Yogic and meditative techniques. In the United States, with the emergence of formal psychiatry, there were always some fringe body-based processes and diets. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic elicited a desire for simple, fast, and effective ways to improve health and mental health.

Perhaps these 2 studies are part of what I might call a social movement for mental health. This movement emphasizes the body and its movements. It already had emerged most strikingly in the difficult to treat posttraumatic stress disorder, including racial trauma. Not only have meditation and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy been recommended, but even humming and buzzing.3 Mood is also being studied as connected to the gut microbiome and trying to find the diet that could be best for brain metabolism.4

Perhaps the body knows as much as the brain about what is good for our mental health.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.


1. Hope E, Bui E, Mete M, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction vs escitalopram for the treatment of adults with anxiety disorders: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2023;80(1):13-21.

2. Balban M, Neri E, Kogan M, et al. Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Rep Med. 2023;4(1):100895.

3. Menakem R. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Central Recovery Press; 2017.

4. Palmer CM. Brain Energy: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health--and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More. BenBella Books; 2022.

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