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Stress Coaches Want You to Try ‘4-7-8 Breathing’—Nature’s Xanax

Emotions can go from zero to 100 real quick. Someone cuts you off in traffic. Your co-worker needlessly CCs your boss on an email. A wave of panic hits as you board a long flight. There are times when your go-to method of quelling anger or anxiety isn't readily available to you. You can’t always hit the gym, go for a long run, call your therapist, or pop a Xanax. But there is something you do always have with you: your breath.

Breath regulation likely isn’t a new concept to you. You already do it when lifting weights, in a F45 class, and maybe you even meditate regularly. If so, you know how powerful breath can be. But if you’re looking for a tool to help you take things down several hundred notches in one minute flat, 4-7-8 breathing is one to keep in your back pocket.

What Is 4-7-8 Breathing?

As with many other breathing techniques, 4-7-8 breathing is nothing new. David Perls, who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction at UCSF, explains that it’s a type of pranayama breathing, which is a way of controlling the breath in different styles and lengths and originates from yoga practices in India. “In Sanskrit, ‘prana’ means lifeforce and ‘yama’ means regulation. So you can think of this practice as a way to regulate your lifeforce,” Perls says. He explains that this specific type of pranayama breathing is credited to integrative medicine doctor Andrew Weil, MD.

“4-7-8 breathing is a breathing technique that involves manipulating the breath by slowing it down, holding it, and then releasing it,” says Scott Rogers, the founder and director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies and the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program.

How to do 4-7-8 breathing

1. Inhale for four seconds.

2. Hold your inhale for seven seconds.

3. Exhale for eight seconds.

4. Repeat two times.

Is 4-7-8 Breathing a Type of Meditation?

Breathing exercises like 4-7-8 breathing can seem sacred—especially given their yogic roots—and something that should be done in a pristine meditation studio or at least somewhere you can sit cross-legged without your dog trying to lick your face. But it doesn’t have to be a whole “event.”

Perls and Rogers both explain that while 4-7-8 breathing can be integrated into meditation, technically, it’s not a meditation practice itself. While meditation is a cognitive process that involves observing and accepting thoughts, breathwork is a way to manipulate the breath; Perls says they often go hand-in-hand, but they don’t have to. That said, he doesn’t recommend doing 4-7-8 breathing while driving, working, cleaning the house, or anything else. “It’s more about taking a moment during the day to settle yourself, maybe before an important meeting or conversation,” he says.

What Are the Benefits of 4-7-8 Breathing?

Carlos Concepcion, a founding instructor at Mind Body Project in New York City, says that one perk of 4-7-8 breathing is that its effects are immediate; it’s one reason why the breath cycle only has to be repeated twice. (Also, if you keep doing it, you might begin to feel light-headed.) That said, all three experts say there are benefits to making 4-7-8 breathing a daily practice. Concepcion says that 4-7-8 breathing can make it easier to control anxiety and other difficult emotions when they come up. Perls agrees, adding, “It’s like a dosing effect where if you’re consistent with it over time, you can access feelings of calm more easily.”

That said, Concepcion says it’s not 100 percent guaranteed to work for everyone. “It’s a method worth exploring for people. If someone tries it and it doesn’t work for them, there are other ways to control anxiety and other emotions. This is just one avenue to go about it,” he says.

What benefits can you get from giving 4-7-8 breathing a shot? Below are five biggies:

1. It can help with anxiety

All three experts say that this is the main reason why many people are drawn to 4-7-8 breathing. “When you feel overwhelmed, it’s a way to just take a moment, close your eyes, and do a few cycles of the breath,” Concepcion says.

Rogers points out that feeling anxious leads to shallow breathing. “We spend a lot of time holding our breath without even being aware of it,” he says. 4-7-8 breathing is a way to slow down the breath, interrupting shallow breathing. Perls explains that this activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the branch of the nervous system that regulates the body’s ability to relax and communicate the message that you’re safe.

In the one minute it takes to do three 4-7-8 breaths, you’ll notice your heart rate slowing down and your mind becoming more calm. Hey, it worked for Ted Lasso. It can work for you too.

2. It can help you calm down when you feel angry

Besides anxiety, another emotion all three experts say that 4-7-8 breathing can help with is anger. “The main purpose of 4-7-8 breathing is to calm down your nervous system, so if you’re someone who is very reactionary, giving yourself a moment to take a few breaths can help you step away,” Concepcion says. “If you’re someone who is quick to anger or very emotional, this breathing technique is going to help you a lot.”

3. It could help you sleep

If having a racing mind is preventing you from getting good quality sleep, Perls says 4-7-8 breathing could help you out. “At the same time that it’s activating the parasympathetic nervous system and calming the body down, it also gives you something to do and focus on,” he says. Instead of creating a mental tornado with your spiraling thoughts, you’ll be counting your inhales, holds, and exhales instead.

While there haven’t been any scientific studies focusing specifically on 4-7-8 breathing and sleep, research does show a connection between slowing your breath as an effective way to improve sleep.

4. It might make you a better athlete

Okay, taking a minute to do 4-7-8 breathing every day might not turn you into the Road House rendition of Jake Gyllenhaal, but if you do it regularly, you could find yourself moving through your workout just a little easier. “Being able to control your breath is something great athletes are good at,” Concepcion says. “For example, when you do a very heavy squat, you need to take a big breath before doing the movement and hold the breath until you hit the bottom of your squat.” He explains that 4-7-8 breathing helps get into the practice of controlling your breath, making it easier to access when you’re working out.

5. It’s good for your heart

A small scientific study shows that 4-7-8 breathing could help lower blood pressure. This is because when you slow down your breath, you take in more oxygen which helps with blood flow and improves blood pressure. New scientific research that analyzed 15 different scientific studies also found that regularly doing breathing exercises has a “modest yet significant” impact on blood pressure.

Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Do 4-7-8 Breathing?

While giving 4-7-8 breathing is low-risk, it’s still not a fit for everyone. Perls says if you have COVID, bronchitis, or any other health condition that makes it hard to take and hold a deep breath, it’s best to skip it. He adds that people with low blood pressure should also be cautious with 4-7-8 breathing since it is connected to lowering blood pressure.

Rogers says that for some people, holding their breath for seven seconds before exhaling it for eight simply isn’t accessible or comfortable. If that’s the case for you, he recommends modifying the exercise, shortening the hold, and exhaling by a few seconds. “There is still benefit in slowing your breathing, even if you’re not doing it to the full extent of the 4-7-8 breathing technique,” he says.

Remember: 4-7-8 breathing is just one tool in your body's toolbox. As Concepcion said earlier, if it doesn’t work for you, there are other solutions to try. But if it does, we suspect that you'll find yourself coming back any time life gets stressful.

Originally Appeared on GQ