Hit the off switch with this effective breathing exercise
The idea of harnessing the power of your breath to help you deal with stress or get to sleep at night is absolutely fantastic on paper, but it’s not so easy to do in practice. We all know a few deep breaths can settle us down at times, but there are certainly more benefits to be unlocked with the breath if you use established techniques like the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
For more information about the 4-7-8 breathing technique and the benefits it can bring, Coach spoke to Stuart Sandeman, founder of Breathpod, which offers breathing workshops for individuals or groups.
What is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise?
You breathe in for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven, then exhale for a count of eight. It’s a breathing technique that will activate the parasympathetic state putting your body in a state of rest, so it’s a very effective pattern for anyone to reduce anxiety. It moves you into that calm, relaxed state.
How long should you do the exercise for to get these benefits?
Even within one cycle you’ll notice the effect. Using 4-7-8 drops your respiratory rate to one breath every 19 seconds, so around three breaths a minute.
Where did the technique originate?
A doctor named Andrew Weil, who founded the Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine at Arizona University, created the 4-7-8 breathing technique. He claimed that if you practise it you fall asleep in 90 seconds, which is a bold statement! But in my experience it has been very effective, and I use it as a go-to for a lot of people with sleep issues.
How does it work?
There are a few things that are at work. You’re using the diaphragm to breathe, and getting the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing in terms of calming the body and moving into a parasympathetic state. Then the breath hold allows carbon dioxide to increase, and when you start to increase that you’re pushing the body to balance out its pH. Often people who are anxious, or stressed and hyperventilating go the opposite way.
Is that why people who are hyperventilating should breathe into a paper bag?
Absolutely. If somebody is hyperventilating you give them a paper bag to breathe the carbon dioxide back in. You can do that by slowing the breath down and adding the hold. That’s how the carbon dioxide builds up, as well as slowing everything down and moving the body into a “rest and digest” state.
Along with anxiety and sleep, can the technique help with anything else?
I often get clients to use it if they have IBS. A lot of times IBS and other stomach issues are linked to stress. Stress is a fight-or-flight response in the body, a sympathetic response. If the body is sympathetic the body is responding like it’s an emergency, all the blood flow goes to the muscles and it puts everything else on airplane mode. Those who are stressed tend to find the digestion isn’t getting the attention it needs. Practising techniques like 4-7-8, which induces a parasympathetic state, will allow the digestion to start working more efficiently.
How do the benefits differ from other breathing techniques like box breathing?
It comes down to ratios. In layman’s terms, every in-breath increases your heart rate and your blood pressure. Every out-breath does the opposite, the heart rate and blood pressure go down. So in essence every in-breath switches us on slightly, and every out-breath switches us off. When your increase your in-breaths because you’re stressed, you hit this on switch.
If you balance in-breaths and out-breaths through something like box breathing – where you breathe in for four, hold for four, out for four – you balance on and off. It’s actually very good for accessing a balanced state. You’re balancing your heart rate variability, the space between the beats. It’s how you access flow, or get in “the zone”, if you like.
With 4-7-8 you exhale for twice as long as you inhale, and by doing this you’re hitting the off switch. In fact, if you can’t remember 4-7-8 then just exhale for double the time. If you do that, you’re going to get a similar effect, a parasympathetic response. The extra part of the 4-7-8 is holding the breath for seven, which is what sends the carbon dioxide up.
Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.