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What Dogs Teach Us About Yawning and Anxiety

yawning-puppy

A young patient of mind yawns regularly in session — and big yawns that she doesn’t cover with her hand… but manners are a topic for another post. Many therapists might either be offended at her boredom or check on how much sleep she is getting. I knew that it was just a sign of her anxiety.

While yawns can signal a need for oxygen or sleep, they can also signal that a person is feeling uncomfortable or in a fear state.

Arousal or fear travel two ways in the body. The brain can send out signals to the body, as in, “Hey that looks like a snake on the trail. Get ready to run.” Many don’t know that this also works in reverse. The body can also send signals to the brain to be on guard. A person who fidgets a lot or carries tension in her shoulders can also trigger the brain to become aroused and fearful based only on the physical actions. So yawning could also be seen as the body’s way of signaling the brain that it needs to calm down: “There is nothing to be worried about, because I am yawning, a sign of sleepiness.”

I remember when in my early 20s I would yawn a lot in certain settings, not realizing the implications related to anxiety. I now only yawn when I am truly tired.

Anxiety ranging from low-grade to panic attacks also can cause shallow or rapid breathing, which can reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to your lungs. Yawning can be the body’s way of signaling to your brain to slow down the breathing rate. Most of us when we get over a stressful event take a big breath of air and let out our stress with the exhale. A yawn may be a similar attempt by the body to achieve this stress reduction.

But yawns also have interpersonal significance. In the animal world, we know that yawns are a means of communicating anxious states between animals. When a calmer dog is around another more-anxious dog, he may yawn to communicate that he senses the anxiety and to signal to the anxious dog that he should calm down. I’ve heard many dog owners assume that their dog is tired when he yawns, when really the dog is anxious due to the owner’s anxiety or due to a stressful situation. The dog is signaling the owner to calm down, but the owner does not understand this communication.

Observe your dog. Does he yawn a lot in your presence or in certain situations, such as when the kids are acting out? Don’t assume he is tired.

Be sure to check with a physician if you find yourself yawning a lot. You may have sleep quality problems or other medical issues that need to be ruled out. Or you may just be anxious.

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