Whenever you’re having trouble falling asleep, there’s a simple breathing technique you can use to help calm a racing mind and restless body in just a few minutes. Known as the 4-7-8 breathing method, this relaxing breathwork pattern was developed by Andrew Weil, M.D., a professor of medicine and public health, and founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. 

The 4-7-8 breathing technique stems from the ancient yogic tradition of pranayama, which refers to the practice of consciously controlling your breath, and includes many different breathing patterns and techniques. Practiced in Eastern cultures for thousands of years, yoga and pranayama made their way into Western culture in the 1800s, steadily gaining popularity over the following 200 years. Intentional breathing techniques—like slow breathing, deep, belly breathing, and single-nostril breathing—are used to offset an overactive sympathetic nervous system (the stress system), regulate anxiety, and promote a state of deep relaxation.

How to Do It

You can do the 4-7-8 breathing method anywhere, at any time—while you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep, before a nerve-wracking meeting, or after a tense conversation at the dinner table. Here’s how to start.

  1. Inhale through your nose for a count of four.
  2. Hold your breath at the top of the inhale for a count of seven.
  3. Exhale through pursed lips for a count of eight. 

Suzanne Bergmann, LCSW, psychotherapist at Joshua Tal, PhD, and Associates in New York City, recommends repeating this cycle four times to start. 

“The pause in between breaths allows more focus on slowing the breath, while also ensuring the exhalation and inhalation are complete,” Bergmann says. She explains that the extended exhale allows you to empty your lungs more than you typically would with your natural breath, which results in your body taking in more oxygen on the next inhale.

If you eliminate the pause, you may find yourself breathing too quickly, or hyperventilating, she adds, and says that it may feel uncomfortable at first. Practice with very gentle, rather than forceful, breaths, and if you feel lightheaded while doing it, try speeding up the counts (no need to count in perfect seconds).

4-7-8 Breathing Method Benefits

It helps replace unwanted thoughts.

Anxious? Your mind can’t focus on two things at the same time, so on the simplest level, doing a short and simple 4-7-8 breathing exercise—counting your inhale, counting your breath hold, and counting your exhale—serves as a replacement for and distraction from racing or unwanted thoughts.

It engages your diaphragm, a key breathing muscle.

When you breathe deeply and deliberately during an exercise like 4-7-8 breathing, you fully activate the diaphragm and improve your breathing efficacy and even your posture. This muscle sits just below your lungs and is where the magic happens, as it’s responsible for the action of inhaling and exhaling. 

It promotes a state of deep relaxation—and helps bring on sleep.

“Breathing exercises can help with sleep by activating your parasympathetic system and helping to relax,” says sleep physician Cheri D. Mah, M.D., M.S. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for bringing your body systems into a state of relaxation—as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that ramps up your body’s fight-or-flight response to stress (think: quicker heartbeat, anxiety, adrenaline rush, alertness). Both states are important for survival, but they require balance—and many of us stay trapped in the hyper-vigilant state of stress for long stretches of time without even knowing it. (It’s no wonder you’re having trouble falling and/or staying asleep while at odds with your own nervous system!)

Breathing with intention and focused attention allows you to calm and relax your nervous system, and in turn your body and mind. In fact, research has found that slow breathing, along with healthy sleep habits, may be more effective for combating insomnia than hypnosis or pharmaceuticals.

It helps lower chronic stress, if done consistently.

It's not magic, and it does take practice, but over time the ability to regulate your nervous system and stress response can have some seriously beneficial effects on your overall health. “Reducing stress can decrease anxiety, lower blood pressure, improve mood, and decrease muscle tension,” Bergmann says.

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