Why humming could be your ticket to near-instant calm
It’s likely no news to you that we’re living in a time of unprecedented anxiety and turmoil. A 2022 poll from Harris and the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 27 percent of American adults report feeling too stressed to function, and that average stress levels remain higher than they were pre-pandemic.
If you count yourself among that 27 percent, you’ve likely tried all the things to reduce stress and anxiety. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, even sighing are all proven to help promote calm..but feel like old news at this point. But humming—you know, that thing you do under your breath or in the shower—to reduce stress? Turns out that’s pretty legit, too.
Experts In This Article
- Farzana Ali, a sound therapist and author of Sound Healing: How to use Sound to Beat Stress & Anxiety
- Gunjan Y. Trivedi, PhD, co-founder of Wellness Space
- Katherine Chang, ND, director of naturopathic medicine at Remedy Place in New York City
- Manjit Devgun, certified Pranayama and meditation teacher at The Well
In fact, a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Yoga showed that the meditation chant “om,” which ends on a humming sound, appears to promote relaxation and provide calmness. Another small pilot study from 2023 analyzed people’s heart rate variability (HRV) to understand their stress levels during four different activities: Bhramari (a yoga breathing practice that mimics the sound of bees through humming), physical activity, emotional stress, and sleep. The study found that people had the least stress while humming (even less than when they were asleep).
If you’re in the camp of people who have never felt a day of calm in their lives, humming may be just the technique for you. To get the lowdown, we reached out to a slew of experts to break down the science behind humming and learn how and when to incorporate it into daily life. After all, if humming can offer an express lane to tranquility, it might be the perfect addition to your routine.
The surprising benefits of humming for mental well-being
Despite being a key part of many meditation and spiritual practices for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, there’s limited research on why humming works so well to promote calm and relaxation. But there are a few potential ways in which humming can prompt your body to slow down and relax.
Experts believe that part of humming’s effectiveness lies in its apparent ability to stimulate the vagus nerve, which starts in your brainstem and goes all the way down to your stomach. This nerve is a critical component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is also known as the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system. When activated, the vagus nerve tells our body that we are safe and can relax, says Farzana Ali, a sound therapist and author of Sound Healing: How to Use Sound to Beat Stress & Anxiety.
“By activating [the vagus nerve], [humming] helps our bodies counteract the fight-or-flight response we experience during mental and physical stress,” says Katherine Chang, ND, a licensed naturopathic doctor and the director of naturopathic medicine at Remedy Place.
It’s unclear exactly how humming activates the vagus nerve, but experts theorize that the sounds and vibrations of humming stimulate the nerve as it connects with the vocal cords. “The sound vibrations calm the brain and the overall nervous system, and thereby, relaxes both the nervous system and the body,” says Gunjan Y. Trivedi, PhD, co-founder of Wellness Space and author of several studies exploring the benefits of various wellness practices on stress and health.
Humming also slows down your breathing rate, allowing for deeper and slower breaths overall. Typically, we take 12 to 18 breaths per minute, but humming and deep breathing slow the heart rate and bring the breath to around four to six breaths per minute, according to Chang. Some preliminary research (in mice) suggests that there is a direct connection between the brain’s “breathing center” (aka the portion of the brain that controls respiratory function) and its arousal response (which activates emotions like anxiety, excitement, etc). Thus, a slower breathing rate can signal your body that it’s time for some chill.
Like other forms of deep breathing, humming prompts the release of nitric oxide, a chemical produced by your body that improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure and heart rate, says Dr. Trivedi—all of which can help you relax. While you can get this benefit from deep breathing, he says that humming is even more effective at releasing nitric oxide.
There are also some potential spiritual benefits to be had from humming. “Humming also opens up and balances the fifth chakra of the body, which is the Vishuddha or throat chakra. This encourages you to speak your truth and be more honest in communication,” says Manjit Devgun, a certified Pranayama (breathwork) and meditation teacher at The Well.
How to try humming for stress relief
If you’re looking for a more intentional way to enjoy the benefits of humming, the Bhramari pranayama, also known as Bee breathing, has some of the most modern research behind its benefits (as well as thousands of years of use in yoga). “Bhramari is calming, promoting sound vibrations within the body, while opening the throat chakra and fostering authentic expression,” Devgun says.
To get the most out of the Bhramari pranayama, Devgun suggests thinking of what is bothering you at the same time and using visualization to release the overwhelming thoughts as sound energy, letting go from your body. Imagine that stress or worry flowing out in front of you as you release the sound from your body
- Sit comfortably, back straight, and shoulders rolled back to open your chest. Let your heart shine outward.
- Gently position your thumbs inside each ear, fingers meeting at the top. Place your index fingers on the inner corners of closed eyes.
- Inhale deeply, then exhale with a gentle humming sound (hmmmm) from the front of your face. Hum as if you are sliding down a huge slide, and let the breath out in a measured way, Devgun says.
- Sense the vibrations as the hum resonates through your face and body.
- Repeat, breathing deeply in then humming while exhaling out slowly. Experiment with different pitches. Notice where vibrations resonate most strongly, providing insights into areas needing attention.
You can hum as often as you need it, as there’s no hard or fast rule for frequency. There’s also no downside or side effect from doing it as much as you want. “Hum when you feel like you need to recenter yourself, ground yourself, or bring yourself back to your body and away from any stress and anxiety,” says Ali.
As with anything, consistency is key to experiencing the full transformative benefits of this practice. “A regular, structured humming practice can help in improving sleep quality, and lowering anxiety and depression levels,” says Dr. Trivedi. So, take some time each day to engage in this soothing humming practice, and embrace the free stress-reduction benefits it offers.