My new podcast series, Just one thing, has proven to be an unexpected hit with millions of downloads. If you haven’t heard it, the idea is very simple. In each episode (which only lasts 15 minutes), I explore one thing you can try and that can make a big difference in your life. The list of topics I have covered so far includes, for example, cold showers, early morning walks, and eating fermented foods.
One thing that has made a big difference in my life and which is very simple to do is practice a little deep breathing. When I feel stressed or when I’m awake in the middle of the night and I have trouble going back to sleep, which is pretty common, I do a breathing exercise called 4-2-4.
I inhale to four, hold it for two, and then exhale until four.
According to Ian Robertson, a professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, who appears in this podcast, deep breathing “is the most accurate medicine you can ever give yourself, without side effects.” He also pointed out to me that it is very unobtrusive. “You can do it in a meeting, and no one needs to know you’re doing it.”
Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as a brake and calms your body. Long, deep breaths slow down your heart and also lower your blood pressure. This is how it reduces anxiety.
Deep breathing can also be an effective way to deal with pain. Chronic pain is closely related to stress, and learning “controlled breathing” is an important part of treatment to manage both.
This is partly because pain and stress have a similar effect on the body. They raise your heart rate and blood pressure, make breathing faster and lower, and make your muscles tighten. If you live in a state of chronic stress or pain, your nervous system will stay in a state of constant alertness and your muscles will be in constant tension.
And it’s not just your body. Stress and pain raise your stress hormone levels, which in turn keeps your brain in a state of constant arousal. You are more sensitive to pain signals and much more aware of them. One way to break this vicious circle is to practice deep breathing exercises.
In addition to 4-2-4, you should try 3-4-5 breathing. In this case, you breathe slowly through your nose into three, then hold for four before exhaling at five. You can do this at any time when you feel stress or pain. Repeat the breathing cycle 10 times and you should feel relaxed.
So the next time you feel under pressure, remember that you have the power to change your brain chemistry with a few deep breaths, whenever and wherever you want.
Read more from Michael Mosley: