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Why Do We Yawn & How to Stop Yawning During the Day

Yawning regulates brain temperature, relieves ear pressure, and wakes us up when we’re drowsy or bored. If you’re yawning a lot, you may need more sleep.
Published
2022-07-22
Updated
2024-06-11
10 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Man sitting at work with cup of coffee yawning

Quick Summary

  • Yawning is common, but it’s not fully understood what causes it. There’s research showing yawning helps cool the brain, relieves ear pressure, helps us control our breathing, and wakes us up when we’re drowsy or bored. 
  • Scientists aren’t sure why yawning is contagious, but it may be linked to empathy and social bonding. 
  • If you’re yawning a lot, you may need more sleep. The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need and help you get more sleep, so you yawn less — and feel better — each day.

It’s seen as a sign of sleepiness or boredom, but why do we yawn exactly? It’s a confusing question because yawning can happen for various reasons beyond just being tired.  

Below, we dive into why we yawn, why it’s contagious, and how using the RISE app to improve your sleep can help reduce yawning if tiredness is the underlying cause.

What Is Yawning?

Yawning is similar to taking a deep breath — you open your mouth for a long, deep inhale before exhaling quickly. However, yawning is more complex, affecting your heart rate, breathing rate, lung volume, and other physiological functions.

Robert R. Provine, the pioneer researcher on yawning, described it as "the least understood, common human behavior." 

Even after decades of research, scientists still don't fully understand the exact reasons and mechanisms behind yawning, though several theories exist (we’ll get to those soon).

These theories help explain the different types of yawns:

  • True yawns: Also called “rest yawns“ and “spontaneous yawns,” these yawns usually happen when you’re drowsy, bored, or relaxed. They may be triggered by anxiety, too.
  • Tension yawns: Also known as “aggressive yawns,” “emotion yawns,” and “social yawns," these typically happen in response to stressful or arousing situations.

Why Do We Yawn?  

Scientists still don’t fully understand what makes us yawn, but there are a few theories. 

1. To Cool Down Your Brain 

Our brains generate a lot of heat from high activity levels and metabolic processes. Unfortunately, high temperatures can cause cell damage and the hotter your brain, the drowsier you feel. 

Research suggests yawning could be a way of cooling down your brain.

When you yawn, your facial muscles contract and relax. This boosts blood flow to your neck, head, and face to promote better heat dispersion and lower your brain’s temperature. Opening your mouth to take in ambient air also helps cool your brain down. 

One study involving parakeets showed that when surrounding temperatures increased, so did the frequency of yawning. 

In another study — this time on humans — a warm or cold pack was placed on peoples’ foreheads. People yawned more with the warm pack and less with the cold pack.  

2. To Wake You Up  

We tend to yawn when we’re bored, tired, just woken up, or about to head to bed.

But why do we yawn when we’re tired? Yawning may help activate the brain and wake you up in an attempt to shake off boredom or sleepiness.

Here’s how: 

  • When your surroundings are no longer interesting enough to hold your attention or your brain temperature is higher than normal, the parts of the brain and body that promote sleep come alive, making you drowsy.
  • At this point, your brain has to choose between wakefulness or sleep. If it goes with wakefulness, it induces a yawn. When we yawn, our heart rate significantly rises, which makes us more alert.
  • Yawning also physically stimulates organs called carotid bodies located in the neck. This enhances arousal and alertness, making you feel more awake.
  • And yawning stretches the lungs, muscles, and joints, promoting blood flow and improving oxygen levels. 

So, yawns may be your body’s reaction to stop you falling asleep randomly during passive activities that need little interaction, like listening to a dull meeting or driving long-distance

3. To Relieve Ear Pressure 

As anyone who has descended in an airplane knows, a rapid change in air pressure can lead to the uncomfortable sensation of blocked ears.

Yawning helps relieve ear pressure by opening up the tubes connecting your ears to the back of your throat. This equalizes air pressure in your ears with the surrounding air pressure.

Interestingly, swallowing also opens up these tubes. For that reason, scientists think relieving ear pressure isn’t the main function of yawning.

4. To Fight Shortness of Breath 

If you’re hyperventilating due to anxiety or stress, your body may resort to yawning.

During hyperventilation, you think you need more air — hence the deep inhalation. 

A yawn repositions the muscles in the upper airway to widen the diameter. There’s also a 300% to 400% boost in lung volume. 

On top of that, yawning expands your rib cage, which tells your brain you’ve taken in enough oxygen to stop feeling breathless.

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Why Are Yawns So Contagious? 

Seeing, hearing, reading, or even just thinking about someone else yawning almost always makes you yawn, too. This is known as “contagious yawning.”

But why is yawning contagious?

The exact science behind it isn't fully known yet, but neuroscientists believe contagious yawning shows social empathy.

Mirror neurons in the brain are thought to be behind it. These neurons match our actions to the people around us. So, if you see other people yawn, chances are you’re compelled to become a yawner, too, even if you aren’t bored or tired.

One study found contagious yawning is higher for strong social bonds — like friends and family members — than weak ones — like acquaintances and strangers. 

And this phenomenon isn’t just restricted to humans. Bonobos and chimpanzees experience more contagious yawning in close groups, too. 

And a 2024 study found gelada baboons experience contagious yawning even when they just hear other baboons yawning. Plus, they yawn more when the sounds come from members of their own group.

On the flip side, certain neurological disorders that impact your social skills may mean you’re less prone to contagious yawning. For example, research shows people with schizophrenia and autism have lower rates of contagious yawning. 

In a New York Times article, sleep researcher Dr. Andrew Gallup suggests contagious yawning may also be a way to “promote coordinated arousal” in a group. Everyone feels more awake and is more alert to external threats.

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How to Stop Yawning During the Day: 5 Tips 

Finding yourself yawning a lot? Here’s how to stop yawning so much. 

1. Get More Sleep 

Sleep deprivation is a common cause of excessive yawning as your brain is trying to wake you up. Getting more sleep can help. 

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RISE can tell you how much sleep you need and whether you have any sleep debt — this is the amount of sleep you owe your body. The more sleep debt you have, the more likely you are to yawn.

You can lower your sleep debt by: 

  • Taking short afternoon naps
  • Heading to bed a little earlier
  • Sleeping in a little later 
  • Improving your sleep hygiene (the habits that help you fall and stay asleep). 

These habits include getting bright light first thing; avoiding light, caffeine, alcohol, intense exercise, and large meals too close to bedtime; and making sure your bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. 

As well as keeping track of your sleep debt, RISE can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day to help make getting enough sleep easier

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
RISE can tell you if you have any sleep debt.

2. Breath Deeply Through Your Nose 

Research shows taking a few deep breaths through your nose can reduce contagious yawning. This might also help cool down your brain and help you fight sleepiness.

We’ve covered more on breathing exercises here. 

3. Drink Some Cold Water 

Drinking cold water could help wake you up and cool down your brain, so you don’t need to yawn. 

Other cooling techniques for excessive yawning include eating cold foods, cooling down your environment, or applying a cool cloth to your forehead. 

4. Change Scenery 

If you’re yawning because of boredom, switching up your scenery could help. If possible, try taking a break from whatever’s boring you — whether that’s work or a long drive — and do something interesting and stimulating.

For times when you’re stuck at your desk, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends the 20-20-20 rule. That is, every 20 minutes, looking at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.

5. Chew Gum 

Research from 2020 found chewing gum could immediately reduce excessive yawning and it could reduce contagious yawning too. 

Expert tip: Getting plenty of sleep, but still yawning? You might need more sleep than you think. We looked at how much sleep 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up need. It ranged from five hours to a whopping 11 hours 30 minutes. 

Check RISE to find out how much you personally need.

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
How much sleep RISE users need.

Frequent Yawning: How Much Is Too Much?

Frequent yawning is usually nothing to worry about. We typically yawn about 20 times a day. Yawning more than this might be a sign you’re sleep deprived. 

Yawning three or more times in 15 minutes without an obvious cause may be a sign of a health condition or a side effect from medication. 

Excessive yawning can also be a sign of: 

  • Chronic stress and anxiety 
  • Sleep disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, or excessive daytime sleepiness 
  • Medical conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, migraine, or stroke
  • Caffeine or nicotine withdrawal 
  • Motion sickness 
  • In rare case, brain damage 

For the most part, people yawn excessively when they’re tired. But you should speak with a healthcare professional if you think you’re yawning too much or if you experience pain when yawning. They can help find the root cause and recommend the best treatment. 

We’ve covered more on why you keep yawning here. 

Yawn Less + Boost Your Energy With RISE 

You might be yawning frequently because you’re tired and your body’s trying to keep you alert. To help you yawn less — and have more energy — try getting more sleep. 

RISE can tell you how much sleep you need and whether you have any sleep debt to catch up on. Plus, as getting more sleep is easier said than done, RISE can guide you through 20+ daily good sleep habits, which are proven to help you fall and stay asleep. 

Users notice the difference: 

“This is such a helpful app. It’s really good for understanding how to improve your sleep! It’s working too! I have a lot more energy during the day from following the app’s guidance.” Read the review

And 80% of RISE users feel more energy within five days of using the app.

FAQs

Why Do We Yawn FAQs

Is yawning from a lack of oxygen?

Scientists used to think people yawn due to a lack of oxygen. But research in the 1980s disproved this theory since it found breathing in more oxygen or carbon dioxide didn’t change how often people yawn.

Is yawning good for you?

Yawning may benefit you by cooling down your brain, which can heat up due to increased activity and stress, helping it function better and maintain alertness. It's also a natural reflex when you see someone else yawning. Frequent yawning may be a sign of sleep deprivation, though.

Why do we yawn when we’re not tired?

Yawning when you’re not tired can help cool the brain, which heats up from activity and stress, helping it to operate more efficiently. It can also relieve boredom, relieve ear pressure, or fight breathlessness.We might also yawn as a natural reflex if we see another person yawning.

Why do my eyes water when I yawn?

It’s not entirely clear why your eyes water when you yawn, but it may help your brain cool down. Yawning may also put pressure on your tear ducts, making your eyes water.

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