Understanding the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique

What is the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique?

The 4-7-8 is a breathing technique developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. The technique is based on the ancient yogic technique of pranayama breathing exercises that help practitioners develop control over their breathing. There are many types of breathing techniques in pranayama, and they are also referred to as mindful breathing exercises. These exercises have been found to have many benefits, including relaxation and stress reduction. When the 4-7-8 breathing technique is practiced regularly, it gives several benefits, including helping you fall asleep in a shorter period of time.(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

How Does The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique Work?

Yogic breathing techniques are typically designed to lead the body into a state of deep relaxation. There are certain patterns of breathing that involve holding the breath for some time to allow the body to replenish its oxygen supply. As we move from the lungs outward, breathing patterns like 4-7-8 provide your organs and tissues with a much-needed boost of oxygen that rejuvenates your entire body.

At the same time, relaxation practices such as the 4-7-8 breathing exercise help bring the body back into balance while regulating the fight-or-flight response we feel when we are under stress. This is especially useful if you are experiencing trouble sleeping due to worries or anxiety.(6, 7, 8)

The 4-7-8 breathing technique allows the mind and body to focus on controlling the breath instead of thinking about your worries as you lie down at night. Supporters of this breathing technique claim that it can calm frazzled nerves or a racing heart. While developing this breathing technique, Dr. Weil had described it to be a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”(9)

The overall notion of the 4-7-8 breathing technique can be compared to other similar practices like:

  • Alternate Nostril Breathing: This technique involves breathing in and out of one nostril at a time while keeping the other nostril closed.(10)
  • Visualization Technique: This technique focuses the mind on the pattern and path of your natural breath.(11)
  • Mindfulness Meditation: This form of meditation enhances focused breathing while also keeping your attention on the present moment.(12)
  • Guided Imagery: This is a technique that encourages a person to focus on a happy memory or story that takes their mind off any worries while they breathe.(13)

For people who experience mild to moderate sleep disturbances, stress, and anxiety, the 4-7-8 breathing technique can be immensely helpful in overcoming distraction and being able to relax to finally drift off to sleep.

Over a period of time and with regular practice, supporters of this breathing technique believe that it becomes more and more helpful and powerful. When you begin practicing the 4-7-8 method, the effects are not very apparent, and you may even feel a bit lightheaded when you try it for the first time. It is essential to note that practicing the 4-7-8 breathing exercise at least two times a day can give you more incredible benefits as compared to practicing it only once a day.

How to Practice the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique?

The 4-7-8 breathing technique can be practiced anywhere and at any time. It is a good idea that when you first start practicing this exercise, try to do it at least twice a day, but you can also do it as many times as you want. However, do not do it for more than four cycles in a row in the starting. As you get used to it, it is possible to work your way up to eight breathing cycles. It is possible to feel lightheaded at first, but this will pass as you continue doing it.(14)

To start the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, find a place where you can sit or lie down comfortably. If you want to practice this technique to fall asleep, doing it lying down would be best. Make sure to practice it while maintaining good posture, especially when you are just starting out.

Prepare for the exercise by putting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth. It should rest just behind your top front teeth. Remember that you have to keep your tongue firmly in place throughout the exercise. Of course, it will take some time and practice to prevent your tongue from moving when you exhale. Several practitioners recommend that exhaling while doing the 4-7-8 breathing technique can be easier if you purse your lips.(15)

Here are the steps you should follow in the cycle of one breath:

  • Allow your lips to part and make a whooshing sound. While doing so, exhale completely through your mouth.
  • Now, close your lips and inhale silently through your nose while counting to four in your mind.
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds or while counting to seven in your mind.
  • Exhale completely from your mouth by making another whooshing sound for eight seconds. Again, you can count to eight in your mind as you do this.

When you now inhale again, you will start a new cycle of breath. You should practice this breathing pattern for four full breaths. It is important to understand that the part where you hold your breath for seven seconds, that is the most critical part of this technique.

Do not practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique in a setting where you won’t be able to fully relax. While this technique does not necessarily have to be used to fall asleep, it can still put you into a state of deep relaxation, and if you are not in a comfortable location, it might not be safe. Also, there is no need for a person to be fully alert immediately after practicing these breathing cycles.

What are the Benefits of Taking Deep, Slow Breaths?

Mindful breathing, like the 4-7-8 breathing method, can lead to a relaxation response.(16) Your body has a natural stress response that is specially designed to help you deal with any dangerous or stressful situations. This is the fight-or-flight response that helps you survive, but if it is overused when coming in contact with everyday stresses, it can take a huge toll on your health. This stress response suppresses your immune system and can lead to many other medical problems, including depression, anxiety and high blood pressure. Your body’s relaxation response interrupts this stress response cycle, putting you in a state of relaxation.

Some of the other benefits of 4-7-8 breathing exercises can include:

  • Lower Blood Pressure: Slow deep breathing for five minutes or more has been found to lower blood pressure and heart rate in people who practice breathing techniques like the 4-7-8.(17)
  • Reduces Anxiety: A study on a group of college students found that practicing pranayama exercises helped reduce test anxiety in students.(18) Another study carried out on senior citizens found lower levels of anxiety after the participants practiced deep breathing exercises for two months.(19)
  • Less Pain: A study carried out on 16 healthy adults discovered that the participants who practiced relaxed deep breathing exercises experienced less pain than the ones who practiced deep breathing with sustained attention. Both groups of participants, though, experienced less anger, depression, and tension.(20)
  • Improved Sleep: One of the biggest side effects of stress is trouble sleeping. For some people, it can become nearly impossible to fall asleep when the body is in a persistent state of a stress response. Practicing deep, slow breathing techniques like the 4-7-8 breathing exercise can trigger the body’s relaxation response, thus helping you fall asleep.
  • Better Concentration Levels: A study done in 2017 looked at the effect of deep, slow, abdominal breathing done for a period of eight weeks on emotions, stress levels, and attention. At the end of eight weeks, it was found that the participants in the deep breathing group fared significantly better on tests of attention. They also had fewer negative emotions.(21)

Conclusion

The 4-7-8 breathing technique and other similar deep breathing practices can help calm your body and reduce stress. If you experience frequent sleeplessness due to stress or anxiety, practicing the 4-7-8 breathing technique could help you fall into a state of rest that you have been missing out on. This is why the 4-7-8 breathing technique is sometimes also known as relaxing breath. The only reported side effect of practicing this breathing exercise is lightheadedness, but this also goes away as you continue practicing. You can also modify the length of your cycles to resolve the issue of lightheadedness.

References:

  1. Singh, V., Wisniewski, A., Britton, J. and Tattersfield, A., 1990. Effect of yoga breathing exercises (pranayama) on airway reactivity in subjects with asthma. The Lancet, 335(8702), pp.1381-1383.
  2. Jayawardena, R., Ranasinghe, P., Ranawaka, H., Gamage, N., Dissanayake, D. and Misra, A., 2020. Exploring the therapeutic benefits of Pranayama (yogic breathing): A systematic review. International Journal of Yoga, 13(2), p.99.
  3. Pramanik, T., Pudasaini, B. and Prajapati, R., 2010. Immediate effect of a slow pace breathing exercise Bhramari pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate. Nepal Med Coll J, 12(3), pp.154-157.
  4. Lin, Z., Kunze, K., Ueki, A. and Inakage, M., 2020, February. AromaCue-A Scent Toolkit To Cope with Stress using the 4-7-8 Breathing Method. In Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (pp. 265-272).
  5. Weil, A., 2017. Three breathing exercises. DrWeil. com. Retrieved from.
  6. Adam, S.K., Tuju, S.O., Losu, F. and SiT, S., 2017, December. The effectiveness of deep breathing relaxation technique and 4-7-8 method against intensity pain during first active phase of normal delivery at maternity clinics in North Sulawesi. In PROCEEDING Manado Health Polytechnic 1st International Conference ISSN: 2599-2031 (Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 201-206).
  7. Pandekar, P.P. and Thangavelu, P.D., Effect of 4-7-8 Breathing Technique on Anxiety and Depression in Moderate Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Patients.
  8. McNair, D., 2020. Flipping on the Creative Switch Using the 4, 7, 8 Breathing Technique. In The Creativity Workbook for Coaches and Creatives (pp. 4-6). Routledge.
  9. Cordem.org. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.cordem.org/globalassets/files/academic-assembly/2017-aa/handouts/day-three/biofeedback-exercises-for-stress-2—fernances-j.pdf> [Accessed 4 January 2022].
  10. Srivastava, R.D., Jain, N. and Singhal, A., 2005. Influence on alternate nostril breathing on cardiorespiratory and autonomic functions in healthy young adults. Indian journal of physiology and pharmacology, 49(4), p.475.
  11. Eberth, J. and Sedlmeier, P., 2012. The effects of mindfulness meditation: a meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 3(3), pp.174-189.
  12. Wood, C., 1993. Mood change and perceptions of vitality: a comparison of the effects of relaxation, visualization and yoga. Journal of the royal society of medicine, 86(5), p.254.
  13. Walker, L.G., Walker, M.B., Ogston, K., Heys, S.D., Ah-See, A.K., Miller, I.D., Hutcheon, A.W., Sarkar, T.K. and Eremin, O., 1999. Psychological, clinical and pathological effects of relaxation training and guided imagery during primary chemotherapy. British journal of cancer, 80(1), pp.262-268.
  14. Umash.umn.edu. 2022. [online] Available at: <http://umash.umn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/4-7-8-Breathing.pdf> [Accessed 4 January 2022].
  15. Features, V., 2022. Video: Dr. Weil’s Breathing Exercises: 4-7-8 Breath. [online] DrWeil.com. Available at: <https://www.drweil.com/videos-features/videos/breathing-exercises-4-7-8-breath/> [Accessed 4 January 2022].
  16. Nast, C., 2022. Can 4-7-8 Breathing Really Help You Fall Asleep Faster?. [online] Glamour. Available at: <https://www.glamour.com/story/4-7-8-breathing-benefits-exercises> [Accessed 4 January 2022].
  17. Mori, H., Yamamoto, H., Kuwashima, M., Saito, S., Ukai, H., Hirao, K., Yamauchi, M. and Umemura, S., 2005. How does deep breathing affect office blood pressure and pulse rate?. Hypertension research, 28(6), pp.499-504.
  18. Nemati, A., 2013. The effect of pranayama on test anxiety and test performance. International journal of yoga, 6(1), p.55.
  19. Pramanik, T., Pudasaini, B. and Prajapati, R., 2010. Immediate effect of a slow pace breathing exercise Bhramari pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate. Nepal Med Coll J, 12(3), pp.154-157.
  20. Busch, V., Magerl, W., Kern, U., Haas, J., Hajak, G. and Eichhammer, P., 2012. The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing—an experimental study. Pain Medicine, 13(2), pp.215-228.
  21. Right as Rain by UW Medicine. 2022. What Is Deep Breathing?. [online] Available at: <https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/stress/why-deep-breathing-makes-you-feel-so-chill#:~:text=Deep%20breathing%20can%20help%20lessen,nervous%20system%20to%20calm%20down.> [Accessed 4 January 2022].

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