Is a sigh just a sigh?

I’ve become interested in sighs... that out-take of breath, which seems involuntary but sometimes says so much. My dog does it and when he does, I wonder in that moment, is he unhappy?


I think I’ve always associated sighing with a sense of sadness and anxiety. A sigh as a friend or lover departs; a sigh as efforts go unnoticed or a sigh of someone despairing. I haven’t particularly thought of all the up-sides of sighing: A deep sigh of relief when something goes well, a sigh of pleasure even.

What sparked my fascination was a really interesting programme on Radio 4 about sighing. I was mesmerised as I drove listening to the cultural references and deeper meanings of a sigh.

Imtiaz Dharker talks about how typically a sigh was considered mainly an ‘alas’ and historians track the use of sighs across music, literature and even health - the idea that the body could expel a melancholy emotion via sighing (and crying which was closely associated). In centuries gone by, people were readily encouraged to sigh out their sad thoughts, rather than cry (which was considered too emotional) and in some religions, the sigh, was allowable so not to move towards any greater grief that might be reflected as the questioning of mightier forces (i.e. God’s will).

As a counsellor, I listen closely to my clients and a sigh in the room, is something I notice. My clients will then describe their sigh, as if describing a dream. Sometimes in the description my client opens a door to something new and different.

And during my research of sighing, I came across an article in The Guardian referencing sighing as a "fundamental life-sustaining reflex"; the importance of which cannot be underestimated. Apparently our brains keep us sighing about 12 times an hour and it’s a critical sort of re-set of our breathing – we have to sigh to keep our lungs in shape.

Dharker considers music – from The Beatles ‘Yesterday’ and the piano notes tipping over in a sigh, to grand opera and the lamentable breath of the diva, to a baby’s sigh and even the sighing of mice.

We are in an era where to explore our feelings is more acceptable and sometimes our bodies speak without talking.

What does my sigh say?

So, I am looking at sighing with new glasses. A sigh is now more a thing of beauty to me – both in distress and in relief, and in pleasure and in life-affirming living. A critical part of our physiology, as well as psychology. I will listen to my own sighing with new interest and I will explore with my clients what their sighs mean to them and how breathing in this way re-boots our systems.

As I walked with the dogs and their owners through the park this morning, my dog-walking friend, reminded me: "and a sigh is how we leave this earth"... indeed, it is.


  • BBC Radio 4 (19th December 2016) , ‘The Sigh’
  • The Guardian (Feb, 2016)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
St Leonards On Sea TN38 & Battle TN33
Written by Veronique Briant, MBACP (Accred) Relationship Therapist - Individuals/Couples
St Leonards On Sea TN38 & Battle TN33

Veronique Briant is a fully qualified humanistic, integrative counsellor working predominantly in the South of England. She writes about everyday experiences that can affect mood and well-being. In her private practice, Veronique works with adults across a range of issues including relationships; anxiety; addictions and identity.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals