We all have trouble falling asleep from time to time. There are few things as frustrating as being tired and not being able to drop off to sleep.
You’ve had a nice hot bath, you’ve enjoyed your favorite hot drink, you’ve even dispensed a few drops of lavender on your pillow. Soft, soothing music is playing. No luck. Nothing helps.
Wait, have you tried the 4-7-8 breathing trick?
Just heard about it myself, but apparently it’s been around for ages.
It’s a holistic breathing technique that is primarily used to combat stress and anxiety but can be used to help people with their sleeping problems. Make sense that it should help since stress and anxiety are often the underlying cause of insomnia – the inability to fall or stay asleep.
Writing for The Thirty, Alina Gonzalez explains the technique.
Gonzalez swears by it and says it has changed her life.
How do you do it?
“You simply breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. “
Gonzales warns that when you try it for the first time, you’ll be desperate to just take in another breath, or you’ll want to speed up your counting. But you should not give in to the temptation.
You must “stick” to the numbers (or at least try to), and don’t take any breaks – in other words, consecutively repeat the 4-7-8 sequence without resuming regular breathing. Keeping this up, 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,” says Gonzalez.
It’s that simple and it works, but why?
According to Gonzales’s friend and licensed wellness practitioner who told her about the technique, the studied combination of numbers has a chemical-like effect on the brain that slows the heart rate and helps one to fall asleep.
“It works,” she told Gonzales. “It’s crazy.” And that’s exactly what happened with Gonzales as well.
“I couldn’t 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,” Gonzales enthuses.
So, of course, yours truly also had to try it out since I suffer from insomnia on a regular basis. The outcome? Well, I can tell you I didn’t lie awake for hours and when I woke up in the middle of the night, using the same technique again, I was able to drop off to sleep quickly. Not instantly mind you, but quickly.
How does it work?
Stress and breathing are inextricably linked. High stress levels lead to shallow breathing and shallow breathing leads to more stress.
When we are upset or stressed our breathing becomes quick and shallow. Breathing deeply and slowly instantly calms us down mentally and physically.
It is not uncommon for people who are stressed or anxious to chronically under-breathe and sometimes 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,” explains Gonzales.
This breathing exercise is a mindful breathing practice, which has been inherent in yoga practices and Eastern wellness modalities for thousands of years, but has only recently been incorporated in Western thinking and practices.
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