4-7-8 Breathing Technique: The Biology of Calming Down Breathing is one of the automatic functions of our bodies and is the function that literally keeps us alive. One of its most essential jobs is to transfer oxygen to the cells around our bodies and to get rid of the excessive carbon dioxide that is produced when our body cells, some trillions of them, finish their assigned tasks. In a way, breathing brings food home and disposes of the trash afterward. Without complaining and with amazing patience, breathing not only keeps us alive and well, but is also flexible and adjustable to external and internal stimuli. In a relaxed, calm environment, our breathing is slow and deep; under stress, it gets shorter and faster, giving us the emotional experience of anxiety. The good news is we can control and manage our stress by intentionally slowing down our breathing and using the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique.
The human brain cells are committed to maintaining stability between the body and the environment and balance the changes that happen in both. For example, when our body detects a virus, the brain gives a signal to our temperature-control center to increase our temperature. Most viruses survive happily under our regular 98 degrees Fahrenheit but will die fast in higher temperatures. The fever is the brain’s way of adjusting to this internal change and balance it out. Another example is our skin’s reaction to changes of temperature in the environment. We get chills when we feel a cold breeze and we sweat under heat. The chills allow our body hair to trap air and help the surface of our skin warm up, while when drying the sweat on our skin allows it to cool down. Those are some examples of the process called homeostasis, Greek for “keeping one’s state stable” which is one of the most important processes of our bodies.
Homeostasis applies to our breathing as well. Through our senses, our brain is constantly scanning the external environment for any potential threat or danger. If there is a threatening stimulus out there, the brain cells start preparing what we call the stress response, also known as the fight, fly, or freeze response. For our bodies to respond to the threat, our heart needs to pump more blood through our vessels, so that more oxygen reaches our muscles and allows them to move fast and take us away from the danger. Where does oxygen come from? Our breathing. Thus, our breath will become faster if we see a snake or hear a weird noise in the middle of the night. It will also become faster if we are stressed. If public speaking causes you stress, preparing to give a presentation will cause , your body will react in the exact same way that it would if you saw a snake. This is because the social threat is translated as equally, if not more, dangerous by our brain cells. Humans are social beings; thus, the fear of being embarrassed or humiliated is as stressful as being bitten by a poisonous snake.
On the other hand, when we find ourselves in low-stress situations, like being held and caressed by a significant other or hugged by a friend, our breathing and heart rates drop to lower levels than our regular. The same happens before we go to sleep. When our brain has scanned the environment as safe, it gives our bodies the signal to calm down and relax. Interestingly, this equation works both ways: if the environment is safe, then our breathing rates drop, and we feel a sense of relaxation; if we control our breathing and intentionally slow it down, the brain gets the signal that the environment is safe and, thus, produces the same sense of relaxation.
The 4 – 7 – 8 Breathing Technique
There are multiple different ways to focus on your breathing and do so intentionally. One of these ways is the 4 – 7 – 8 breathing technique. Introduced by Dr. Andrew Weil, this technique’s goal is to help people breathe mindfully by paying attention to their body instead of their thoughts. It is built in three stages: inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8.
1. Before you start
Find a place or a space that is comfortable and will allow you to fully relax. Remember that our brain is constantly looking in and out of our bodies to identify potential threats, in an effort to protect us. Spaces where phones are ringing, people are talking, moving, or running around, and you have to talk to others simultaneously are not ideal as your brain will get busy processing this information and will keep you agitated. However, if you want to practice this technique at your job and your office is noisy, you can try getting at least some privacy for a moment. Using a restroom could also work. Try to sit in a comfortable position, ideally with your feet on the ground. Grounding is important as it offers a point of physical contact and a sense of stability. Some people find closing their eyes helpful in maintaining their focus, while other folks prefer to keep their eyes open and have more visual control. Feel free to do what feels most comfortable to you. Then take a couple casual breaths.
2. Inhale for 4 seconds
Touch your belly and feel the air filling your stomach. When we are stressed, the air tends to fill in our lungs and the upper part of our bodies, which shortens the length of our breath. In danger, it is important that we take more, shorter breaths. To calm down, we should aim at longer, deeper breaths. Try to split your inhaling equally in the four seconds and be mindful of it.
3. Hold for 7 seconds
Holding your breath gives your body the time it needs to absorb the oxygen you have just inhaled and process it slowly. Think of it as a mindful food consumption, during which you can smell the food, listen to the sound of the heating or your soda, and notice the texture of it. Those 7 seconds give your brain the time to think about what it needs to do with the “food”, the oxygen, instead of consuming it fast.
4. Exhale for 8 seconds
As with inhaling, try to split your breathing-out equally during the 8 seconds. This will help you gain more control over your breathing and focus. Some people report that making a whooping sound with their mouth while exhaling helps them focus and mutes the auditory distractions around them. Other folks find making this sound silly. You are free to try out different ways and find the one that works best for you.
When you first start trying out the 4-7-8 breathing technique, perform three to four repetitions. In the beginning, you may find it difficult to hold your breath for 7 seconds or exhale for 8 seconds consistently. It is completely normal to have this experience. You can reduce the steps 2 & 3 by one second and take a 4-6-7 breath instead, until you become more comfortable with the steps and gain more control over them. This is a great exercise to perform with your partner(s) as well, either by doing it concurrently and breathing together, or by giving instructions to one another.
The goal of many breathing exercises is to focus on the process instead of the outcome of the exercise. The fact that you are reading this post means that you have successfully taken thousands of breaths over the years. With the 4-7-8 breathing technique, the aim is to calm down by slowing down the pace of your breaths and paying attention to the different processes involved in this task. By doing that, you will give your brain a break from scanning the internal and external environments for threats and, consequently, your body will receive a signal that it is safe to relax and have the experience of calming down.
If you experience difficulties calming down and navigating your daily anxiety, call 215-922-5683 to schedule an appointment with a therapist at the Center for Growth.