With everything you have to pack into a day, it’s no wonder if you're feeling constantly stressed to the max. A high level of stress can bring down your mood as well as keep you from getting a good night’s sleep – and both of those things will wear away at your health and wellbeing. So what you need is an easy way to decompress, fast. Here's a solution: a technique called 4-7-8 breathing, which is a super-simple, super-calming trick that you can start using today to feel much, much better.
What is 4-7-8 breathing?
Also known as “breathing gymnastics,” 4-7-8 breathing is an intentional breathwork technique, meaning you control the pace and depth of how you're inhaling and exhaling. Designed to relax both your body and your mind, 4-7-8 breathing began in ancient times as part of the yoga-related breath practice called Pranayama. In 2015, integrative medicine doctor Andrew Weil, MD, popularized the technique, and more people began to try it.
How does 4-7-8 breathing specifically affect your system? According to Harvard Medical School, your “fight or flight” response, which is a physiological readiness your body adopts to combat danger, can be constantly provoked by lesser, chronic stresses. Worrying about your job, your bills, your kids – virtually any nagging concerns can cause that readiness to kick in. The fight or flight response produced too much of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn make you more susceptible to health issues like high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, anxiety and depression.
The 4-7-8 breathing tackles this problem. “It activates the vagus nerve, which is responsible for the relaxation response,” says Chiti Parikh, MD, executive director of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, and an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. "When the vagus nerve is activated through breathing, it can help reduce cortisol and anxiety."
How do you do 4-7-8 breathing?
First, find a quiet place at home, or outdoors. You can do 4-7-8 breathing anywhere you’re comfortable. “Create the space you need,” says Ava Johanna, a meditation and breathwork instructor in Austin, Texas and founder of the Academy of Breath. “Some people like to sit in a cross-legged pose to do it, and others prefer to sit against a wall. You can also do 4-7-8 breathing lying down.”
According to Cleveland Clinic, this is the correct way to do 4-7-8:
Inhale through your nose for a count of 4
Hold your breath for a count of 7
Exhale through your mouth for a count of 8
Repeat this cycle three times. It’s important to start slow, because controlling your breathing for extended periods of time can make you feel lightheaded. Stop if this happens to you, and take it slower next time. Eventually, you can work up to longer periods of practice. “The optimal amount of time to do this breathwork is five minutes,” Johanna. “While you’re focused on this breathing, five minutes go by very fast!”
Here’s a video of Dr. Weil demonstrating the technique:
What are the benefits of 4-7-8 Breathing?
Research has shown that the 4-7-8 technique can slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. “It tells your body it’s time to relax,” says Johanna. “In a matter of minutes, it will help you settle into a meditative, rested state. Also, by activating your body’s parasympathetic response, 4-7-8 breathing has added benefits, like boosting your immune system and helping your digestion.”
Another great result that 4-7-8 breathing can produce: a better night’s rest. “Sometimes it’s hard to quiet your thoughts so you can fall asleep,” says Dr. Parikh. “By practicing 4-7-8 at bedtime, you can enhance your theta and delta brain waves, which makes it easier to fall into deep restorative sleep.” If you wake up in the middle of the night, 4-7-8 can help you fall right back to sleep, too.
The breathing should be perfectly safe for most people, although you should check with your doctor before trying it if you have a history of any respiratory illness or disease.
How can you make 4-7-8 breathing part of your daily routine?
A great way to work 4-7-8 into your day is to do it first thing in the morning, and last thing at night. Doing it as soon as you get out of bed in the morning, and then right before you get into bed at night, is an excellent way to fit it into your schedule effortlessly.
Use the time you’re breathing to really be in the moment – notice the sights, sounds and smells around you, and let your mind be clear. “Ultimately, 4-7-8 breathing lets you drop into a deeper state of presence,” Johanna sums up. The calmer you are, the more you can enjoy every moment of your life.
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