It was the
week before my best friend’s wedding, and my anxiety (nerves, plus
excitement) had reached epic levels. I wasn’t sleeping, to say the
least. Part of that had to do with the maid of honor speech I would be
giving. I was terrified and could not shut my brain off to fall asleep
day three of lying awake until the wee hours of the night, I sheepishly
admitted to her that I was too nervous to fall asleep, and she—the
bride, who was sleeping like a baby the week before her own wedding—told
me I needed to try the “4-7-8” breathing trick.
to be a licensed wellness practitioner who studies meditation, stress,
and breathing techniques, and told me it would change my life. You
simply breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath
for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. She
explained that the studied combination of numbers has a chemical-like
effect on our brains, and would slow my heart rate and soothe me right
to sleep that night. “It works,” she told me. “It’s crazy.”
How it Works
wait to put the trick to the test, and to my complete disbelief, I woke
up the next morning unable to even remember getting to the eighth second
of the exhale because it knocked me out that fast. For the next four
nights leading up to the big day, even as my stress increased, I was
able to fall asleep the minute I tried the 4-7-8 trick. I also used it
to relax in the moments leading up to the speech.
feel stressed or anxious, adrenaline courses through your veins, your
heart beats at a rapid rate, and your breathing becomes quick and
shallow. So before I get into the specifics behind how the 4-7-8
breathing trick works, I wanted to explain in my own words what it feels
like when you try it. To me, the effect of the breathing technique
feels almost like a sedative drug, because in order to hold your breath
for seven seconds and then to exhale for eight—when your breath is so
shallow and short—your body is forced to
slow your heart rate. It has no choice. Holding your breath, and then
slowly, deliberately exhaling for eight seconds, causes a chain
reaction. It feels like going from a mad-dash sprint to a finish line to
a slow, leisurely, calming stroll through the park.
first start, you’ll be desperate to just take in another breath, or
you’ll want to speed up your counting, but if you stick to the numbers
(or at least try to), and don’t take any breaks (in other words,
consecutively repeat the 4-7-8 without resuming regular breathing), you
can literally feel your heart
rate slow down, your mind get quieter, and your whole body physically
relax. It washes over you like a calming, relaxing drug. I can never
remember getting past the first set of 4-7-8.
Do you know
the feeling of being put under by anesthesia, where you are conscious,
and the next thing you remember is waking up? That’s what this is like
for me: As soon as I start the practice, the next thing I remember, I’m
waking up in the morning and can’t even remember beginning the 4-7-8
count the night before. Crazy.
Now to the more technical details: People who are stressed or anxious are actually chronically under-breathing,
because stressed people breathe shortly and shallowly, and often even
unconsciously hold their breath. By extending your inhale to a count of
four, you are forcing yourself to take in more oxygen, allowing the
oxygen to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath for seven
seconds, and then emitting carbon dioxide from your lungs by exhaling
steadily for eight seconds. The technique will effectively slow your
heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream, and may even make
you feel slightly lightheaded which contributes to the mild
sedative-like effect. It will instantly relax your heart, mind, and
overall central nervous system because you are controlling the breath
versus continuing to breathe short, shallow gasps of air.
How it Can Work For You
breathing practices have been a part of yoga and Eastern wellness
modalities for centuries, but aren’t as popular in Western culture. The
most well-known champion of the 4-7-8 breathing technique in the U.S.,
who is somewhat responsible for the prevalence that the technique does
have amongst integrative medicine practitioners, yogis, and those in
search of stress reduction and overall relaxation, is Harvard-educated Dr. Andrew Weil.
not promising or claiming (nor does Dr. Weil) that practicing this
breathing technique can fight disease or provide clinical benefits, I
can tell you one thing: If it affects you like it did me, it will help
you fall asleep way faster. Not
only is it free, it also works for a number of different instances. In
addition to using it to fall asleep in a pinch, you can practice it if
you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself thinking about
something you have to do the next day, in order to fall back asleep;
if you are nervous before an event (like a wedding, or giving a
speech); if you are angry about something and want to calm down. My
friend (the bride-to-be who slept like a baby the week before her
wedding), who gets nervous to fly, uses it before flights and during if
the plane encounters turbulence.
It is now what I use to fall asleep every single night, and each morning, I’m amazed at how well it worked.
Check out Dr. Weil’s site if you are interested in further reading, and tell me what you think about this trick in the comments below.