The Breathing Trick That Can Instantly Calm Anxiety

By: Chris Freytag, CPT // August 24, 2015

We’ve all been there: we’re having a bad day, a bout of anxiety, or trouble falling asleep and what advice do we get? To “just breathe.” A well-intentioned partner, friend, or loved one offers up that age-old platitude and somehow it only serves to stress us out more. Why is something so simple (and so essential to life) difficult to remember in the middle of an anxiety attack or another sleepless night?

When we’re feeling tense or stressed, it’s as if we forget to breathe—really breathe. That’s because shallow, rapid breathing is controlled by the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, while long, deep breaths stimulate the opposing parasympathetic system—the one that tells us to relax. So while we’re always breathing, we’re not always breathing deeply, and it’s those full breaths that act as natural cues to unclench our tight grip on fear.

We all need a little reminder to breathe deeply throughout the day, but what if there was a simple equation you had in your arsenal that used the ratio of your breaths to actually promote a sense of calm in seconds? According to Dr. Andrew Weil, there is, and it’s called The 4-7-8 Breath.

Related: Six Steps to Melt Away Stress


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    How To Practice The 4-7-8 Breath

    The 4-7-8 Breath, also referred to as “The Relaxing Breath” has been championed by Weill for years and is said to promote better sleep, reduce anxiety, and even help ward off food cravings. The technique is based on pranayama—a word you may be familiar with from yoga class—which is an ancient Indian practice that simply means “regulation of breath.” It’s an exercise that doesn’t require any equipment, takes less than a minute, and can be done anywhere at any time.

    • Place the tip of your tongue against the tissue behind your upper front teeth, keeping it there throughout the exercise
    • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for 4 seconds
    • Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds
    • Exhale completely through your mouth, pursing your lips slightly, for a count of 8 seconds

    Repeat this cycle three more times, or as many as needed to feel a sense of calm. If it feels awkward to exhale around your tongue when it’s against your upper teeth, purse your lips a little. It’s believed that the ratio of inhalations and exhalations in the exercise allows the lungs to be fully charged with air, helping to better circulate oxygen to the body, promoting a sense of peace. Some people use it to fall asleep quicker, while others use it to center themselves in stressful situations, like traffic jams, panic attacks, or before a big presentation.

    We’re not claiming that anything can turn you into a perfect sleeper, a worry-free person, or a zen master. After all, our imperfections make us human! But if there is a simple way to promote peace in the midst of stressful situations, we’re all ears. The first time we tried the technique, we were amazed at its effects—we didn’t just feel relaxed, we felt relieved. Even if you’ve had a daily meditation practice, this simple exercise may leave you with a new sense of stillness that can be summoned whenever you need it.

    READ THIS NEXT: The Beginner’s Guide To Meditation

    Lifestyle, Mindset, Stress + Anxiety

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    on Reply

    I might be doing something wrong. Im not able to bring in enough air or let out enough in the time given unless i suck and blow hard .i dont find that type of breathing relaxing. So what is wrong? My breathing or thinking? Thank you.

    on Reply

    This is a very helpful breathing tool that we can use anytime, anywhere. Thank you for sharing. I plan on putting this trick into use and passing it along to my children as well.

    (This will help us personalize your experience so that you can get the best advice possible from us!)
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