Yawning is a normal physiological response and most of us do not give it a second thought. But just what exactly it is a response to is still somewhat of a mystery. There are several theories as to why people yawn and the odd yawn after a long day or when awaking after sleep is not a cause for concern. However, when yawning becomes excessive, occurs at unexpected and even inappropriate times, then it needs to be taken more seriously. Excessive yawning is seen as a symptom in a host of medical conditions, some of which may be potentially life threatening.
Why people yawn?
Here are some of the main theories as to why people yawn every now and then.
- Yawning involves taking a deep breath and may be the body’s way of increasing blood oxygen levels when it drops too low.
- Yawning may be a response to the need to sleep or a signal that the body is tired.
- Yawning may be a non-verbal indicator of boredom in a social setting.
- Yawning may be a part of a stretching routine when the body needs the muscles to be stretched and used.
Despite the theories, the exact cause of yawning in every instance is not known. Yawning occurs throughout life and is not a problem solely for humans.
Yawning Can Be A Symptom
Excessive yawning on the other hand may be associated with :
- Sleep disorder – insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep apnea and narcolepsy.
- Psychiatric conditions – anxiety, depression and possibly attention deficit disorder (ADD).
- Infections – African trypanosomiasis.
- Neurological – epilepsy, vasovagal reflex, brain tumor.
- Cardiovascular – heart attack, aortic dissection.
- Respiratory – carbon monoxide inhalation, hyperventilation.
- Substances – withdrawal from nicotine, opiates or sedatives.
Tips for Stopping Yawning
Despite your best efforts, it is difficult to stop a yawn when it starts and when you do, you feel a bit uneasy thereafter. For most of us the concern is that yawning in public is socially frowned upon. We would rather avoid it, especially when at work, on a date or in a social gathering. There are some simple steps to stop yawning but if yawning is excessive, you may need to see a medical doctor for further investigation.
- Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. It is difficult to manage day after day with less than 6 to 7 hours sleep per night.
- Break up your workload where possible so that you have several short breaks in between rather than one long lunch break.
- Have a short nap once you are feeling tired. It is a luxury few of us can afford during the working week but can make you more productive once you wake up.
- Maintain a schedule and keep set hours as far as possible. That late night movie or long hours of surfing the Net should be avoided.
- When fatigue starts crawling in, try to stand up and walk around for a few minutes.
- Just a short break at an open window or walking outdoors, with some simple stretching and breathing exercises can be quite invigorating.
- When all else fails, try to cough or stimulate a sneeze.
Relax and Sleep
There is no escaping the need for sleep even though you may feel that stimulants and the adrenalin are keeping you in peak performance. If you have not slept for the past 18 hours at least then listen to your body and get a good night’s sleep. First unwind if you are worried about lying in bed awake, staring at the ceiling. Unwinding is a way of relaxing your body until you slip into sleep. Have a hot bath, try a hot drink and spend at least 30 minutes reading or listening to music before turning in for the night. Take note of yawning in this relaxing period – it may be your body’s way of saying that it has had enough relaxing and you now need to hit the bed.
Have a Short Nap
Yawning may be a sign that your body needs to “switch off” even if you do not feel extremely tired. While the adrenalin and tight deadlines may be keeping you going, your body still signals that it needs a break in between but not full night’s sleep just yet. A short nap may do and tide you over until you can have a good night’s sleep. 20 minute power naps may seem to work well but can at times leave you yawning more than you did before you napped. Rather try to find an hour or two within your schedule to have a quick sleep.
Try to Keep Set Hours
The body works on somewhat of a 24 hour cycle known as the circadian rhythm. Different organs, systems and processes in the body become more active at different types of the day. When it comes to sleep, the body tends to unwind as darkness sets in. But even if you cross time-zones or darken the room during the day, your circadian rhythm may still upset your sleeping patterns. This is one of the reasons that alternating shift workers and traveler’s suffering with jet lag feel tired and unable to sleep. Constant yawning is one of the major symptoms. If you do have the option of sleeping and waking set hours, keep to the schedule and do not alternate unnecessarily.
Stand Up and Walk Around
If one yawn is following another while sitting in a meeting or lecture, and you find yourself quite unconsciously stretching your arms and legs, it is probably your body signaling you that it is time to start moving around. Letting the fatigue or boredom get the better of you by staying put may worsen the bouts of yawning. A short walk may be all that is needed. Moving around gets your circulation going and increases your breathing rate. Simple stretching and breathing exercises can give your body the “wake up” that it needs.
Breathe Deeply and Slowly
Simply altering the way you breathe may be all that you need to keep the yawning at bay. Try taking a few deep breaths – inhale and exhale slowly. Although one of the more popular theories surrounding the cause of yawning revolves around the aspect of low blood oxygen levels, higher than normal oxygen levels may also be a factor. Do not try to breathe rapidly as it can mimic hyperventilation which can in turn worsen yawning.
Get Fresh Air Outside
Stepping outside to get some fresh air may be the better option than grabbing a cup of coffee. It is not so much about the oxygen levels being lower in a building, but rather a change in environment for even a short period can perk up the mind. Yawning is at times caused by boredom and the same mundane office building that you see most days in the year can be quite un-stimulating. Breaking the boredom with a change of scenery can be as simple as stepping outdoors, taking a brisk walk and breathing in some fresh air before returning to the grindstone.
Try to Cough or Sneeze
If all other measures fail and you cannot get a chance to nap or take a walk outdoors, try coughing or sneezing to break a bout of repeated yawning. Sneezing is not as easily triggered but a cough can be voluntarily initiated. Not just a shallow polite cough. Take a deep breath and cough loudly, but not too forcefully where you may strain yourself. It may be due to the deep inhalation prior to a cough or sneeze but even if it does not work, mimicking or sneeze or pretending to cough can be a polite way to cover up an unstoppable yawn.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on March 6, 2013