“Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.” Andrew Weil, MD

I once had a patient, a single mom of 2 energetic boys, who worked as an engineer at a prominent Texas high-tech company. She was on two different antidepressants, an anti-anxiety medication, and was needing to increase the doses continuously just to try to function daily. She was, understandably, having more side effects from the meds but not having success with her unrelenting stress. She was on probation at work due to blow-ups with fellow employees, and was informed by her boss that if she was not able to “get a grip, and soon” she would lose her job (which created more stress!) She sat in front of me, very depressed and shaking, wanting my help. I went over with her the simple exercise of relaxation breathing, which immediately made the shaking go away, and told her to download Dr. Andrew Weil’s audiobook Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing available through the Apple Store. She listened to the book, did the exercises faithfully, and decreased her meds to just one low-dose antidepressant. She had a marked turn-around at work, even receiving a promotion within 90 days due to a new invention she proffered to management.

A part of our nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system. It controls involuntary functions in our bodies that keep us going – breathing and a heartbeat being the two most important ones. It is made up of dual parts: the sympathetic system (fight-or-flight, “sitting on the edge of the chair” system) and the parasympathetic system (the “chill” functions). Many of us live more in the sympathetic system in our harried day-to-day existence. Interestingly, breathing is done unconsciously but it can also be “taken over” consciously at any moment, once we decide to do so. By performing some simple breathing exercises, we can move ourselves from the stressed side to the chill side in mere seconds…you only need less than 5 minutes of your day to get there!

Here are simple instructions on how to do a relaxation breathing exercise:

The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise (from drweil.com)

This breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.

Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.

Give it a try! If it does not work, it has not really cost you anything. However, if it does work, it belongs to you, does not need refills, and it can do wonders for your health now and in years ahead. Remember….breathe!