So today’s post is going to demonstrate a really awesome breathing technique developed by an awesome guy, Dr. Andrew Weil. I’m going to get a little scienc-ey for a bit then discuss why this is so cool.
Whether it’s financial woes, health issues, or just loneliness and busy traffic, people are under more low-level, chronic stress than at any other time in history. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress and the CDC estimates that up to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Americans are so stressed out that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace that costs American industry more than $300 billion annually.
Everywhere we turn in modern society, there are people and things that keep us feeling insecure and on alert. Stress can play a part in problems like headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.
When our adrenal glands put out more and more adrenaline and cortisol in response to our busy lives and perceived stress, and we don’t take ample time to rest, heal and recover fully, our bodies and minds become accustomed to living in a constant state of fight-or flight and start to malfunction.
There is nothing more disconcerting than feeling a heavy sense of impending doom—trembling, heart racing, light-headed, overwhelmed, scared—even though your eyes and your logic tell you there is absolutely nothing to fear.
That anxiety you feel, that panic that is starting to take you over? It’s chemical. It’s not real; it’s not reflective of true circumstances going on right in front of you in the present moment.
If it was, you’d call it fear, not anxiety.
But it sure feels real. After all, your body is having a very real fight-or-flight reaction. You wouldn’t be trembling, sweaty-palmed and freaked out for no real reason, would you?
Well the reason you are anxious is real, but it’s not why you think. The reason for your anxiety and panic is simply that you have a stress response system that has run awol.
NERVOUS SYSTEM 101
he central nervous system is made up of the brain, the spinal cord and millions of individual nerve cells called neurons, which serve as the body’s wiring. Nerve signals are transmitted as electrical impulses through the length of a neuron. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of the neuron it jumps over to the next neuron using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
At the end of each neuron there are tiny sacs filled with neurotransmitters. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of the neuron, it triggers these sacs to dump their neurotransmitters into the gaps that separate one nerve cell from another. These gaps are called synapses, and the neurotransmitters float across the synapse. When they reach the neighboring neuron, the neurotransmitters lock into specialized receptor sites. When enough neurotransmitters attach to the receptors, the neuron “fires,” sending an electrical impulse down its length.
Glutamate and GABA are the most abundant neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. GABA is short for gamma amino butyric acid, and is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is essential for the proper function of your brain and the central nervous system. GABA has the effect of reducing excessive brain activity and promoting a state of calm. While glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and encourages neurons to “fire” and send a nerve impulse, GABA does the opposite, and tells the adjoining cells not to “fire,” not to send an impulse.
Without enough GABA to balance glutamate, nerve cells fire too often and too easily. Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, seizure disorders, and numerous other conditions including addiction, headaches, depression, Parkinson’s syndrome, and cognitive impairment are all related to low GABA activity.
GABA hinders the transmission of nerve impulses from one neuron to another. To help understand this effect, think about the last time you had some caffeine. Caffeine is a natural drug that inhibits GABA from locking into the neuron receptors. The less GABA, the more nerve transmissions occur. Think about what drinking too much coffee feels like: that is the sensation of too much glutamate in your system, without enough GABA.
This is where the 4 7 8 breathing technique comes in.
The slow breathing rate and the increase in blood oxygen that 4 7 8 breathing creates signals the brain to release GABA! GABA, in turn, inhibits the release of cortisol and adrenaline, allowing your body-mind to finally slow down, rest, digest and repair itself.
You can use 4-7-8 breathing whenever you need to create an immediate release of GABA that will help bring your nervous system back to baseline, and make you feel calmer, more relaxed and better able to meet the challenges that life offers you.
The technique is called 4-7-8 Breathing, and it has four easy steps:
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Release your breath from your mouth with a whooshing sound for a count of 8.
- Without a break, breathe in again for a count of 4, repeating the entire technique 3-4 times in a row, then resume normal breathing and activity.
If you use a second hand on a watch to count your breaths, the whole exercise will take just 57 seconds! But it doesn’t really matter if each count lasts an actual second; it only matters that you count evenly so the ratio of 4-7-8 is maintained.
You may find yourself feeling mildly light-headed after doing this. That’s actually a sign it is working, and it will quickly pass. Feel free to do this as often as you want, but you may need to get used to it first.
Many people find that this breathing technique immediately ends an anxiety or panic attack.
Why It Works
The 4 7 8 breathing technique works because when you are stressed out, your breathing becomes very shallow. People who experience long-term, chronic stress are often chronically under-breathing and are in a constant state of mild hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation. Additionally, under-breathing can lead to a build up of excess carbon dioxide in your tissues, which contributes to oxidative stress, inflammation and acidification in your body—the foundations for disease.
It’s hard to think clearly (much less be healthy) if you’re not getting enough oxygen. And when you are totally freaking out with anxiety or a panic attack, it’s common to breathe very shallowly, hyperventilate, or even unconsciously hold your breath—which affects your thinking and your health even more!
But by drawing out your inhale over a count of 4, you are making yourself slowly and consciously take in more oxygen. Then by holding your breath for a count of 7, you allow as much of that oxygen to saturate into your bloodstream as possible, cleansing and energizing all your cells, tissues and organs. Finally, by exhaling for a count of 8, you make sure you have expelled as much carbon dioxide from your lungs as possible.
The 4 7 8 breathing technique basically takes the shallow, oxygen poor breathing you normally do when you are stressed out, and turns it upside down. This has some profound effects on your body and your mind.