If you’re someone who struggles to get to sleep or experiences anxiety and stress, then a technique that is being showcased on TikTok and other social media platforms may be able to help you. The so-called “five finger breathing technique”, which sounds like something from an old martial arts film, can allegedly make it easier to calm yourself on demand and fall asleep more quickly.
What happens when we’re stressed?
Life is hectic and it’s easy to get caught up in the demands of the everyday world. When anxious, we can get stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response that can lead to cycles of racing and panicked thinking. This state of agitation is part of the body’s natural response to a perceived threat.
When we experience a stressful event, our amygdala – part of the brain that contributes to emotional processing – sends distress signals to the hypothalamus. This part of the brain can be seen as a kind of control center that issues signals to the rest of the body to prepare for an emergency, that is, whether to fight, run, or freeze in place.
In order to do this, the hypothalamus sends signals to the part of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system which triggers the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. This gets you pumped up and ready for action, making you more alert.
In order to sustain this level of high arousal, the hypothalamus activates another component of its stress response system called the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) which results in the pituitary gland signaling the adrenal gland to release cortisol into the body. This keeps it revved up and consistently on high alert until the danger passes whereupon the second part of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, kicks in to calm things down again.
This response is part of our evolutionary makeup. It happens remarkably quickly and has kept us alive in instances where we just don’t have time to consciously react. However, some people are unable to turn it off. Chronic low-level stress in our daily lives can keep the HPA axis constantly activated, which not only makes us persistently anxious, but it can also have long-term effects on our physical health.
It’s a familiar feeling for many people and even knowing that you’re experiencing panic can lead to more anxiety and uncertainty. But there are ways to combat this and to short-circuit the process. If you make a conscious effort to step back and slow down, the brain has a chance to catch up and calm itself.
What is the five-finger breathing technique?
The five-finger breathing technique is a simple and powerful technique to quickly calm yourself. More importantly, it can be performed on demand as needed (as long as you’re not driving).
The technique is particularly potent because it is multisensory, meaning it requires you to focus on several sensations at the same time, rather than just your breathing. It is essentially a form of mindfulness where your attention is brought to the sensation of your hands touching while also watching the slow intentional movement of the exercise.
Performing the techniques helps your brain enter a state of relaxation and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to release endorphins to calm it down.
How to perform the five-finger breathing technique?
For this exercise, you’ll need two hands. One hand will be used as a base – it won’t be moved – and the other will be used to trace along the sides of the fingers. It doesn’t matter which hand is which – go with whichever feels comfortable.
Essentially, you’re going to be moving a finger along the contours of your base hand as if your finger is a skateboarder going up and down ramps (only extremely slowly).
Step 1: Start by holding the chosen base hand in front of you with the fingers spread out – palm facing away from you.
Step 2: Put your index finger of the moving hand at the bottom of your thumb of the base hand and then begin to slowly move your finger up the thumb to the tip. As you do this, take a slow breath in, and focus on the sensations of your breathing and the movement.
As your finger reaches the top of the thumb and starts to go down the other side, start to exhale slowly.
Step 3: When you’ve traced to the bottom of your thumb, start to bring the finger up the side of your index finger and repeat the process along the edges of the remaining fingers. Each time breathe in as your finger ascends and breathe out as it descends.
Step 4: Once you’ve traced your fingers in one direction, you can reverse the process and return back to the thumb. Make sure you focus your mind on the process and breathe slowly and relax into it with each ascent and descent. It is important to allow yourself the chance to relax deeper and deeper each time.
Step 5: Repeat the process as many times as you need until you’re calm again. Then, go back to your daily activities but make sure you do so slowly so as to hold onto your newly acquired calm.
The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.
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