By: Dr. Tanvi Maharaja, PT DPT OCS
Wrinkles, traffic, masks, work, social life, doctors’ appointments, politics, childcare arrangements, the weighing scale, health scares… the list goes on. Our lives have somehow turned into a long list of stressors. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Stress has become as interwoven in our lives as snacks with Netflix. They just go together.
How did we get here? Never mind. Let’s not cry over spilled milk. How do we get out of here? Now that’s a pertinent, more emergent question because as a society, we just cannot go on much longer like this, at least not in a healthy way. And the cracks are already beginning to show.
So, what is stress? Simply put, it is the load of demands on ourselves that far exceeds our physical, mental, and emotional capacity to deal with it.
We talk a lot about stress in our daily life. Everyone is stressed out. The whole pharmaceutical industry is at our disposal to address it, but surely there must be another way?!!
There is: it is simple, free, easy, and anyone can do it. It is called breathing!
[We will talk about it in a minute, but I quickly wanted to emphasize that stress can also be managed through various other means, including aerobic exercise, healthy lifestyle habits, including regular physical activity, sleep, nutrition, and of course, communication.]
Let us come back to breathing. Slow, relaxed breathing has been known to help with different pathological conditions (e.g., asthma, hypertension, insomnia, anxiety, and depression). While Eastern cultures have whole lifestyles rooted in breathing mechanics (Yoga techniques s/a Pranayama, Far-eastern techniques like Tai Chi, Qigong, etc), Western medicine has developed independently of any spiritual or religious backgrounds. Western cultures use paced breathing techniques for therapeutic purposes. They are known as progressive relaxation, autogenic training, or neuromuscular relaxation techniques. The focus is on reducing the frequency of breathing to less than 10 breaths in a minute. Paced breathing has been associated with overall well-being and relaxation, and conversely, studies have found that fast breathing has been often linked to anxiety and stress.
A little bit of science behind this: our nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic part that works in flight/freeze/fight mode (imagine walking in the forest and coming face to face with a tiger!) and the parasympathetic system that helps with rest and digest (you are back in your cave with your loved ones with a warm fire and a drink!). Slow breathing techniques enhance the parasympathetic autonomic activity, improve the interplay between cerebral activities (such as increased EEG alpha and decreased EEG theta power) which in turn help with emotional regulation and psychological well-being in healthy individuals. You can find a more detailed description of psychophysiological mechanisms here.
Now, here comes the part that matters: how do we actually do this?
Here’s the low down on 4’7’8′ breathing:
Find a comfortable spot, preferably somewhere peaceful and quiet. You can sit or lay down, but what matters is that you are physically at ease as best as you can.
Now gently begin to bring your focus to your breath and for a few moments just observe the breath in and out of you, observe its flow and how it feels.
The next step is to inhale for a count of 4, or for four seconds.
Hold the breath in for a count of 7, or for seven seconds.
And finally, breathe out gently to a count of 8, or for eight seconds.
Do it for anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. You can do this about 3 times a day for best results.
You don’t have to get too hung up on 4’7’8′ to begin: it doesn’t help to force it; do what feels easy and natural to you and you will gradually be able to come up to the “magical” number. Just kidding, there is no magical number! What matters is that the exhale is slow, deep, and relaxed.
Life has been too crazy since we hit the 20’s (as in 2020 and onward, but also, literally since we hit the 20’s!!).
If a little attention to breathing is going to make life any easier for me, I am all for it!
As a pelvic floor therapist and a Yoga life coach, I practice in a holistic manner to bring the best of mind-body therapies tailored to my patients’ needs. A few things have stood the test of time and have only been helpful, without an iota of harm. And 4’7’8 breathing is one of those golden clinical takeaways that most of my patients are offered. I treat patients in pain. Most folks who are in pain are stressed about being in pain, so this breathing technique is helpful. Once you get hooked to it, hopefully, you will be reaching for that medicine cabinet less often. And there will be more smiles to spread and more joy to share.
Give it a shot and let us know how it goes!!