Sighing a lot may be associated with your emotional state, such as stress and anxiety. However, it may also be a sign of an underlying respiratory condition, such as asthma.

Sighing is a type of long, deep breath. It begins with a normal breath, then you take a second breath before you exhale.

We often associate sighs with feelings such as relief, sadness, or exhaustion. While sighing can play a role in communication and emotions, it’s also physiologically important for maintaining healthy lung function.

But what does it mean if you sigh a lot? Can that be a bad thing? Keep reading to discover more.

When we think of sighing, it’s often in connection with conveying a mood or emotion. For example, sometimes we use the expression “breathing a sigh of relief.” However, many of our sighs are actually involuntary. That means we don’t control when they occur.

On average, humans produce about 12 spontaneous sighs in 1 hour. That means you sigh about once every 5 minutes. These sighs are generated in your brainstem by about 200 nerve cells.

What does it mean if you’re sighing a lot more frequently? Increases in sighing can be associated with a few things, such as your emotional state, particularly if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, or an underlying respiratory condition.

Overall, sighing is good. It plays an important physiological role for the function of your lungs. But how exactly does it do this?

When you’re breathing normally, the small air sacs in your lungs, called alveoli, can sometimes collapse spontaneously. This can negatively affect lung function and reduce the gas exchange that occurs there.

Sighs help to prevent these effects. Because it’s such a big breath, a sigh can work to reinflate most of your alveoli.

What about sighing more than normal though? Excessive sighing can indicate an underlying problem. This can include things like a respiratory condition or uncontrolled anxiety or depression.

However, sighing can also provide relief. A 2009 study found that more sighing occurred in conditions of relief than in stressful scenarios. A 2016 study showed that deep breathing, such as sighing, can reduce tension in people with anxiety sensitivity.

If you find that you’re sighing a lot, there are several things that may be causing it. Below, we’ll explore some of the potential causes in more detail.

Stress

Stressors can be found throughout our environment. They can include physical stresses like being in pain or in physical danger, as well as the psychological stresses you may feel before an exam or job interview.

When you experience physical or psychological stress, many changes occur in your body. These can include quick heartbeat, sweating, and digestive upset.

Another thing that can happen when you’re feeling stressed is quickened or rapid breathing, or hyperventilation. This can make you feel breathless and can be accompanied by an increase in sighing.

Anxiety

According to research, excessive sighing can also play a role in some anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias. But it isn’t clear if excessive sighing contributes to these disorders or is a symptom of them.

A small 2008 study investigated if persistent sighing was associated with a physical health condition. Although no association was identified, researchers found that 32.5 percent of participants had previously experienced a traumatic event, while 25 percent had an anxiety disorder or other mental disorder.

Depression

In addition to feeling stress or anxiety, we can also produce sighs to signal other negative emotions, including sadness or despair. Because of this, people with depression may sigh more often.

A small 2011 study used a small recording device to evaluate sighing in 13 participants with rheumatoid arthritis. They found that increased sighing was strongly associated with participants’ levels of depression.

Respiratory conditions

Increased sighing can also occur along with some respiratory conditions. Examples of such conditions include asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In addition to increased sighing, other symptoms — like hyperventilation or feeling like you need to take in more air — can occur.

Increased sighing can be a sign of an underlying condition that needs treatment. Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience excessive sighing with any of the following:

  • shortness of breath that’s concerning or out of proportion with your age or activity level
  • stress that’s difficult to relieve or control
  • symptoms of anxiety, including feeling nervous or tense, having trouble concentrating, and experiencing difficulty controlling your worries
  • symptoms of depression, including persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, lowered energy level, and a loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed
  • feelings of anxiety or depression that begin to disrupt your work, school, or personal life
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Sighing has an important function in your body. It works to reinflate alveoli that have deflated during normal breathing. This helps to maintain lung function.

Sighing can also be used to convey a variety of emotions. These can range from positive feelings like relief and contentment to negative feelings like sadness and anxiety.

Excessive sighing may be a sign of an underlying health condition. Examples can include increased stress levels, uncontrolled anxiety or depression, or a respiratory condition.

If you’ve noticed an increase in sighing that occurs along with shortness of breath or symptoms of anxiety or depression, see your doctor. They can work closely with you to diagnose and treat your condition.