Faith Gong: A sigh is just a sigh

Our families know us best. The people who live with us, who see us first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, who have front row seats to what bubbles up when we’re squeezed – they’re the ones with the true insights into our character.

This is why, whenever a non-family-member says to me, “Oh, you always seem so patient, so calm, like you have it all together!” I picture my daughters rolling on the floor, laughing. They know the wild-eyed woman who stands in our mudroom, waving her arms frantically and yelling, “Time to go! We’re running late! You should’ve used the bathroom ten minutes ago when I told you to! GET IN THE CAR NOW!!!”

And it’s also why I took notice when my daughters started doing impressions of our family around the dinner table.

These impressions are not mean-spirited, and are always performed in the presence of those being imitated. Sometimes they begin in a haphazard fashion and spread around the table at random; sometimes they take the form of an organized game, in which everyone performs an impression of one particular family member, who judges the best impersonator.

What emerged from their impressions of me is that my family thinks I sigh a lot.

It was my husband who first called my attention to my sighing. For years now, we’ve replayed versions of this scene:

ME (Walking around the house, minding my own business.)

HUSBAND: (leaping to his feet) What?!? What is it?!? What did I do wrong?!?

ME: Uh, nothing. Why?

HUSBAND: You were sighing again.

I attributed these strange scenes to my husband’s overdeveloped sense of guilt and responsibility. But it turned out that my daughters had noticed my sighing as well.

My eldest daughter’s impression of me went like this: “Here is Mommy’s sad sigh. (sigh) Here’s her angry sigh. (SIGH) Here’s her happy sigh. (Sigh!) Here’s her bored sigh. (Sigh?)” And so on – you get the idea.

I was grateful that at least my daughter recognized the full range of emotions contained in my sighing (as opposed to my husband, who reads all my sighs as, “There’s something wrong, and it’s your fault!”) Still, it’s a bit confusing that my family views me as The Woman Who Sighs, while I remain ignorant of the fact that I’m sighing at all.

In an attempt at greater self-awareness, I did some research on the science of sighing. In a 2016 study, researchers at UCLA and Stanford pinpointed two miniscule neuron clusters that transform normal breaths into sighs. Sighs are more than just deep breaths; they begin as normal breaths, but a second breath is added atop the first before the exhalation. The study revealed that sighing is vital to healthy lung function – and therefore, to life itself: Sighing inflates the alveoli, which are tiny balloon-like sacs in the lungs where oxygen enters and carbon dioxide leaves the bloodstream.

According to UCLA Professor Jack Feldman, “When alveoli collapse, they compromise the ability of the lung to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. The only way to pop them open again is to sigh, which brings in twice the volume of a normal breath.”

And we need to sigh a lot. “If you don’t sigh every five minutes or so, the alveoli will slowly collapse, causing lung failure,” Dr. Feldman added.

This was good news: Apparently, my frequent sighing is a sign that I’m a very advanced breather.

As it happens, I have a long history of breathing. (Don’t we all?) Although I’ve been breathing all my life, I became a conscious breather when I started taking voice lessons in middle school. At that time, the Broadway musical Les Miserables was all the rage, and it featured some young actors around my age. I was convinced that all I needed was formal training to launch my Broadway musical career, and I was convincing enough that my parents enrolled me in voice lessons.

My voice teacher, Mrs. McNulty, taught me that singing is all about breath. “Breathe into your diaphragm!” she intoned every week.

My Broadway career never took flight, but the lesson that breathing sustains song had stuck.

I was a theater kid as opposed to an athlete, but when I reached my early 20s – that tumultuous season of graduations, first jobs, and marriages – I started to run and practice yoga. I didn’t know where my life was headed, so I ran in circles; I felt like much was out of my control, but I could control the movements of my own body. Breathing is essential to both running and yoga, both of which are powered by deep, sustained belly breaths.

With the birth of my children, running and yoga faded in the rearview mirror along with my old dreams of Broadway fame. I can recall being in the car one day, back when I had a couple of young children at home. I was out running errands, and I realized suddenly that I wasn’t breathing; not only that, I hadn’t breathed in a long, long time. Of course, I had been breathing – I was still alive, after all – but I hadn’t really breathed. Not the kind of breath that could sustain a song or a jog or a downward dog. I’d gotten too busy to breathe.

After that, I paid more attention to my breath. Every once in a while, I’d fill my belly with air and let it out slowly through my nose. Because if you’re feeling too busy to stop and breathe, then you really need to stop and breathe.

Perhaps this conscious breathing has become unconscious, and that’s what my family hears as sighing. Or perhaps my sighs are linked to emotions; the Stanford and UCLA researchers don’t know how that works, but they suspect that neurons in the brain areas that process emotion might trigger “sigh neuropeptides.”

Or perhaps what my family interprets as a clue to my emotional state is really just a clue to the state of my alveoli.

In any event, they’d better get used to it. If we sigh once every five minutes, or 12 times an hour, then I have 105,120 sighs to go in the coming year.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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